WASHINGTON -- Is the federal government ready to accept the cloud as more than just a buzz word and to support the shift of IT operations to the cloud?
This week, leaders on Capitol Hill and top tech firms are announcing a formal structure to support the shift of government IT operations to the cloud, launching a new congressional caucus and a private-sector advisory group to promote cloud computing throughout federal departments and agencies.
In the House, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, reached across the aisle to launch the Cloud Computing Caucus with Gerald Connolly (D-Va.). Issa and Connolly will serve as co-chairs of the new caucus, which aims "to try to make sure that we are injecting what might be seen as an arcane technical issue into the discussions in Congress," Connolly said Thursday at a conference here at the Newseum focused on government cloud computing.
The conference organizer, the government IT consortium Meritalk, has joined with Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and EMC to convene an advisory group to the congressional caucus, pledging to educate lawmakers and the public about the benefits of the cloud through a series of quarterly meetings on the Hill, with the first scheduled for late February, among other outreach efforts.
"We know that this advisory group will play a very important role in keeping lawmakers informed on federal IT and cloud computing," said Teresa Carlson, public sector vice president at Amazon Web Services. "At AWS we also are confident that cloud computing services can meet the mandates to reduce cost, drive efficiencies and increase the innovation across all the federal agencies. And this Cloud Computing Caucus Advisory Group is going to offer our lawmakers tools and resources to promote further implementation of cloud computing within the agencies."
The advisory group, like the caucus itself, convenes in a nonpartisan spirit. Indeed, government IT reform is a rare issue that can draw support from both sides of the aisle.
Connolly, who serves as the ranking Democrat on one of the subcommittees on Issa's panel, acknowledged that common ground between the two co-chairs of the new caucus has been in short supply.
"We agree on nothing. We don't agree on the IRS issue. We don't agree on Benghazi. We don't agree on [Operation] Fast and Furious. We don't agree about the Obama administration. We don't agree on the role of federal regulation in our lives. We don't agree on the direction of the economy. We don't agree on whether it's sunny out or dark and cloudy. With one exception," Connolly said. "We came together on the issue of technology -- the whole issue of how the federal government manages IT reform."
Issa and Connolly teamed up to introduce the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, a bill that would amount to a major overhaul of the government's IT operations, including the role of department and agency CIOs.
FITARA passed the House last June as part of a defense spending bill, but was stripped out of the version that was ultimately approved by the full Congress.
As Issa explained it, FITARA would provide needed support for the government's efforts to adopt cloud computing, which achieves efficiency and cost savings from tapping into an established, repeatable architecture. In keeping with that spirit of consistency, the bill would consolidate authority over IT projects, currently diffused among CIOs at the sub-agency and bureau levels, under the CIO of the department or agency. Federal officials decidedly did not follow that approach in developing the website for President Obama's healthcare law, Issa pointed out.
"The greatest failure in the cloud is reinventing anything," he said. "Healthcare.gov should not have been built on a unique portal. It should have been built on proven platforms that had already delivered similar results for similar applications and simply had connections to its current needs."
Of FITARA, he added, "We demand that it be passed and signed into law, not because of Healthcare.gov, but as I said, Healthcare.gov is a good example of [how] there were lots of people in the kitchen, they were all sous chefs and we can't find the chief chef anywhere for that particular creation. We have to have that type of responsibility and predictability."
Amazon's Carlson applauded the bill for "giving our CIOs centralized control on how they can spend and take a look at their money and the efficiency and use of that and move it around in the right ways. And it's really an important step forward for federal agencies and the federal IT community."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.