WASHINGTON -- Facing constricting budgets and ongoing pressures to improve citizen services, CIOs and IT managers in the federal government are increasingly looking to a shared model for their IT operations.
At a conference last week hosted by the American Council for Technology, senior officials from across the government described the early momentum behind the push for shared services, which they see as critical for CIOs to advance agency missions while keeping spending in check.
"In times of tight financial constraint, that's really what it's going to come down to across the board. Because reducing costs is just going to be a race to the bottom," says Bernie Kluger, the deputy performance improvement officer at the Office of Personnel Management.
Uncle Sam Wants Shared Servics
The federal CIO Council took a step toward formalizing the government's shared-services strategy earlier this year when, in April, it rolled out Uncle Sam's List, a listings hub for commodity IT and support services offered by private-sector tech firms housed on the internal Max.gov portal.
Uncle Sam's List, which accompanied the release of a shared-services implementation guide, offers federal CIOs a catalog of providers and products that have been vetted by the CIO Council's shared-services subcommittee.
"Basically it's like Craigslist" for shared services in the federal government, Kluger says.
As a practical matter, even evangelists for shared services within the federal government acknowledge that that model of acquisition and deployment does not map to all agencies and applications.
Much of the resistance to shared services grows out of a culture within the federal government that sees sub-agencies and bureaus operate as semi-autonomous organizations, each making its own decisions about IT investments, says Simon Szykman, CIO of the Commerce Department. That culture, Szykman said, choosing his words carefully, might be described as "change-averse."
Of course, the departments and major agencies of the federal government vary widely in mission, size and organizational structure. Within Commerce, there are a dozen bureaus, including the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, each with its own CIO. The predictable result has been the development of a patchwork of IT services with little centralized coordination.
"Because of the diversity in the mission areas and the decentralized, federated nature of the department, there's a long history of very distributed decision making when it comes to IT spending," Szykman says.
"At the department I control about 1.5 percent of the department's IT spending, and the other 98.5 percent is controlled by the bureaus, and even within the bureaus not all the spending is necessarily under the control of the CIOs because we have large, important mission programs, and so often the funding is further distributed within bureaus out to the line office or large programs. And the result of this is just a legacy of very independently managed distributed services. And so we viewed the framework for IT management and IT investment management at Commerce as really being ripe for moving more toward shared-services models," Szykman adds.
Commerce Department Weighs In
Last year, the acting secretary of Commerce issued a directive that gave Szykman additional authorities to oversee the department's IT portfolio in areas such as setting standards and architecture and rolling out shared services.
Szykman, in turn, delegated some of those authorities to bureau CIOs to help them consolidate their oversight of their organization's IT operations. He explains that IT efficiencies are an area of keen concern within Commerce because, though it doesn't rank among the largest IT spenders within the government, the percentage of its overall budget devoted to technology is among the highest of all the departments.
The benefits of shared services could extend beyond cost savings and operating efficiencies, Szykman says. By consolidating the federal technology portfolio and reducing the number of disparate applications running in departments and agencies, the feds could also improve their security posture, always an area of high concern in government IT.
"By aggregating systems and consolidating them, we're better able to secure them," Szykman says. To that end, Commerce this year rolled out continuous monitoring as its first department-wide shared service.
Shared Services Not Right for Every Bureau
Szykman allows that while commodity operations like email, Web hosting and the help desk might be well-suited to the shared-services model, many more elaborate, mission-specific applications will inevitably remain unique to the various bureaus. After all, the applications in use by the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are very different from those running at the patent office.
"I'm a strong believer that the right answer is not to consolidate 100 percent of IT up to the department level, particularly in an organization such as Commerce where there is so much mission diversity," he says. "I do think that it's natural and appropriate for the mission-related IT to remain close to where the mission is down in the bureau level."
But at the bureaus, Szykman is pushing for more centralized authorities for the CIO, which he sees as the clearest path to moving out of the stovepiped model for IT services that has taken hold throughout Commerce and other departments.
"Within the bureaus there's been some efforts moving toward consolidated services," Szykman says. "Within bureaus there's been a lot of effort to pull things up to the CIO level, at least in the areas that are commoditized, and start pulling together distributed services into shared services, in part for efficiency purposes, but also in part just to improve the quality of many of these services."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @kecorb. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.