White House proposes sweeping federal IT reforms

Federal CIO Kundra has released a 25-point plan to reform the troubled federal IT sector.

For years, the differences between the use of information technology in the public and private sector have been glaring. Closing the technology gap has been one of the most important priorities of the administration’s IT executives. Today, the White House released a report (below) that acknowledges those issues and proposes specific reforms to begin to address the IT gap that Peter Orzag, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the White House, highlighted this summer.

This morning in Washington, the White House held a forum on information technology management reform hosted by federal chief performance officer and OMB deputy director for management Jeffrey Zients and U.S. chief information officer Vivek Kundra. The two laid out the Obama administration’s strategy to reboot how the federal government purchases and uses information technology.

“A productivity boom has transformed the private sector over the past decades,” said Zients this morning. This boom has increased output, lowered prices and boosted satisfaction in the private sector. “Unfortunately the government has missed out,” he said, despite the fact that federal agencies have spent some $600 billion dollars on technology over the past decade. “We need to make government more productive, efficient and responsive. Fixing IT is our top priority … this is a rare time in D.C. where everyone agrees on a problem and what needs to be done.”

The event was streamed live at whitehouse.gov/live. Video is embedded below:

IT reform means structural change

Zients outlined five structural changes:

  1. Adopting lightweight technology and shared services
  2. Aligning budgets with technology cycles
  3. Strengthening program management
  4. Increasing governance, accountability
  5. increasing engagement with IT community

Kundra, who followed Zients, went through each of the 25 points in the IT reform proposal. Key reforms proposed in the plan include the following goals:

  • Create career tracks for IT program managers.
  • Move to pilot projects with more budget flexibility and greater transparency in the implementation process.
  • Develop IT acquisition specialists to closely align acquisition with technology cycles in the broader economy
  • Following the model of Social Security, enact the requirement for complete, integrated teams to be in place before projects are approved
  • Launch “myth-busting” campaigns about acquisition of federal IT
  • Use “TechStat” sessions and other accountability measures to end or accelerate troubled projects
  • Reduce the number of federal data centers by at least 40 percent by 2015.

Kundra emphasized that the Obama administration wants to get people working on large IT projects to rotate between the federal government and the private sector, although he noted that would likely not include IT vendors. Instead, he pointed to global enterprises like Starbucks or Alcoa.

One of the most crucial IT reforms proposed by Kundra relates to startups. Kundra said the administration wants to make it easier for federal government to work with the small, agile technology companies that are constantly iterating. “We want to focus on how to create an ecosystem for how startups and small businesses can compete,” Kundra said in a phone interview. He pointed to collaborating with the Small Business Administration to create an infrastructure for that kind of interaction.

In a larger sense, Kundra also talked about how the proposed federal IT reform would shift the government CIO role “from owning data centers, owning custom systems, to provisioning them like utilities.” Instead of managing massive proprietary systems, CIOs could focus on incremental improvements to features in a modular, agile acquisition process. To say that that would be a sea change would be to willfully ignore so much of what has plagued the federal government’s use of technology.

The response from the audience at the White House and online was positive. “IT reforms and ExpertNet reflect keen understanding of redefinition of scale,” tweeted Bill Eggers, global public sector research director at Deloitte. “Cloud and crowd allow small groups to do big things.” Eggers’ immediate reaction was that the IT reform agenda was both “visionary and transformational,” setting a standard for government globally.

Teri Takai, the incoming Department of Defense CIO, applauded Kundra for this work and related it to her own. Takai also offered up a cautionary request: “Look at the cybersecurity aspects as being as important as efficiency drives and cost saving drives.” For many of us, she said, the need to address cybersecurity will be a way to drive the IT reforms proposed. “Efficiencies are always scary,” she said, but it’s important to recognize the trade offs and balance security. In the context of the scale of the attacks on government websites or the denial-of-service attacks during the WIkileaks saga, this is a crucial element of feedback.

The question and answer period that followed Kundra’s briefing highlighted several critical issues, including acquisitions, cloud computing and security. A bedrock question for any government reform proposal, in IT or beyond, was posed right at the beginning: How will this be institutionalized? In reply, Kundra said that the White House IT team is working with Congress on S.920, the Information Technology (IT) Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act of 2009 introduced by Senator Carper (D-DE) that passed the Senate. The Obama administration will have to work with the incoming Republican majority to achieve similar legislation in the House. Given the emphasis on enhanced oversight and waste prevention, such legislation has at least a decent chance of being considered.

“Cyber cuts through everything we do,” said Kundra, responding to another question on IT security from CTOVision.com‘s Bob Gourley. “That’s why the President ordered a top-down review of cyber,” he said, and why government IT security officers are “shifting work from paper-based reports to standing up red teams and blue teams” that can improve the actual security posture of the government, as opposed to spending cycles dealing with FISMA compliance reporting.

The full report is embedded below:

25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT

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