WASHINGTON — At a time when government CIOs face rising expectations for IT services and frozen budgets, it's more critical than ever to forge partnerships to harness the technology portfolio so support the mission objectives, senior tech and finance officials said at a government conference on yesterday.
Perhaps nowhere is that collaboration more important than between the CIO and CFO, where an alignment between the technology and budgeting authorities can achieve more effective and cost-efficient IT purchases.
"Our top priority really is buying smarter," said Lesley Field, acting administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy. "That's where I think the CFO community, the CIO community and the [chief acquisition officers] can come together and think about better solutions for the future."
For Federal IT to Advance, Leaders Must Cooperate
OMB's drive toward a more efficient and coordinated approach to IT acquisitions comes as agencies are in the midst of a series of ambitious technology overhauls that are familiar to CIOs in the private sector. Agency tech teams have been developing plans in response to a series of White House directives in areas such as cloud computing, data center consolidation, mobility and big data, among others.
Those challenges can seem daunting — and in an apparatus as large and officious as the federal government, the turnaround mission is an ongoing process where progress is measured in years, not weeks or months.
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The budgetary pressures are real enough, but U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel suggested that the government is beginning to shed the mindset that a new IT initiative necessarily requires an additional leg of funding. Indeed, some government undertakings, such as sharing IT services and retiring data centers, could produce technical efficiencies in their own right while also cutting costs and freeing up valuable personnel resources.
"It's really about, 'How are we doing this in a fixed or declining fiscal environment?'" VanRoekel said. "In prior decades … to do more in government in the realm of IT, you kind of had to spend more. We've proven that isn't necessarily the case."
Successful CFO-CIO Collaboration Assesses Vendor Relationships
Field highlighted the area of commodity IT — desktops and other basic hardware and services such as email that all employees use, regardless of their agency or job function. Departments, agencies and bureaus too often operate as siloes, forging distinct contracts with vendors for essentially the same technology that's used across the government.
"Stop being unique," Field urged, suggesting that more collaboration within and among agencies could help the feds start "buying smarter" while yielding cost savings that aren't available when acquisitions are made on a piecemeal basis. "By reducing duplication, we can leverage our buying power, which usually brings down the unit price."
To that end, in December 2012 OMB established the Strategic Sourcing Leadership Council, a cross-agency panel charged with identifying ways to cut spending and lower total cost of ownership while improving services. Part of that effort includes more sophisticated vendor evaluations to help officials identify which providers are delivering the best value for the government.
"We have to assess how contractors are doing," Field said, noting that OMB intends to push out new guidelines in the next couple weeks that will expand the data collection and reporting on vendor performance.
Other panelists pointed to the more nebulous but equally daunting challenge of reforming the culture throughout the ranks of the government to create a more flexible and risk-tolerant IT environment.
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Collaboration can help there, too, according to Kathryn Stack, deputy associate director at OMB. Too often, she hears stories about tech workers complaining that OMB or their agency CFO has in place strict rules that prevent them from even considering certain projects that could advance mission outcomes.
"Well, not really," Stack said. "In fact, there's tons of flexibility in government. Under OMB circulars, there are many things that can be waived."