Ever since 2010, when President Barack Obama's administration released a 25-point implementation plan to reform federal IT management and called for broad-based IT reform that included a cloud-first mandate, federal agencies have been scrambling to move applications to the cloud and meet the aggressive deadlines set forth in the plan.
In the rush to find the low hanging fruit—relatively straightforward capabilities like moving email to the cloud—agencies have risked losing sight of the big picture: supporting the priorities of government with flexible, cost-effective IT strategies that break with the big-money legacy monstrosities of the past. After all, reforming IT is about more than the technology. Get it right and the government itself will run better, achieving greater levels of agility while dramatically reducing costs.
However, too many agencies are so bureaucratic and their existing IT environments so complex, that developing a comprehensive plan of attack is a Herculean task. That's without even considering the challenge of measuring the effectiveness of such a plan.
Enterprise Architecture Tough Requirement for Federal Agencies
The federal government has risen to these challenges by requiring all agencies to implement enterprise architecture (EA). Ever since the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 called for EA at the federal level, agencies have been hammering out detailed EA strategies that describe each organization's initial as-is state, desired future state and actionable plans for getting from one to the other. Such plans call for streamlining business processes, and the organization itself, in order to maximize operational performance, as well as optimizing technology environments to be more agile and cost-effective in the face of the ongoing evolution of mission priorities.
Federal EA efforts are intended to help agencies realize cost savings through consolidating and reusing shared services, eliminating obsolete and redundant mission operations, enhancing information sharing through data standardization and system integration, and optimizing service delivery by streamlining and normalizing business processes.
It's a tall order for any organization. For government agencies, however, achieving real value from their EA efforts has been a struggle of immense proportions. In fact, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, only one agency among the 27 surveyed has managed to achieve all the goals set forth in the federal EA strategy that Clinger-Cohen laid out 16 years ago—the U.S. Agency for International Development.
USAID is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid. The agency provide economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of U.S. foreign policy goals. It works with volunteer organizations, indigenous organizations, universities and other organizations to promote national security, reduce the risk of terrorism and address global poverty.
With almost 4,000 employees in dozens of global bureaus and missions, maintaining effective, secure communication and collaboration has always been a challenge. It's no wonder, then, that USAID is migrating as many as 50 applications to the cloud, including email, office productivity and various business applications.
Cloud Only First Step in Enterprise Architecture Strategy
However, this move to the cloud is not the whole story at USAID. The more important lesson is how successful the agency has been in leveraging EA to meet its strategic goals. In fact, simply expressing the goals for its architecture is the first milestone the GAO calls out for achieving successful organizational transformation with EA.
In the case of USAID, the goals it laid out in its EA program charter in 2011 are to facilitate analysis of the agency's IT environment in order to promote the effective and efficient deployment of IT services. In particular, the agency intends to do the following:
- Support improvement of mission-critical business processes via the identification and application of EA standards.
- Guide efforts to locate, validate and promote the strategic use of agency information.
- Facilitate analysis of the agency's hardware, software and enterprise applications.
- Provide governance for USAID technology efforts by designing and supporting the implementation of EA models and standards.
The second milestone mentioned in the GAO report is to fully establish metrics and a method for measuring and reporting enterprise outcomes and benefits resulting from successfully implementing the EA strategy. Of the 27 departments and agencies the GAO evaluated, only three had successfully completed this milestone: the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and USAID. In particular, USAID had established metrics and guidance for measuring EA outcomes, focusing both on cost savings and avoidance due to process efficiency, technology standardization, consolidation and retirement. USAID also established metrics for client satisfaction based on client surveys that solicited opinions on the architecture's value to the business.
The third milestone is where USAID stands alone among federal agencies: It actually conducts the measurements that it set forth at the second milestone on a regular basis. In February 2012, for example, USAID reported a cost savings of $12.3 million and cost avoidance of $9.5 million from transitioning disparate human resource systems to a single HR shared services center, in conformance with its EA plan. The agency also conducted the corresponding measurements for its move to email-as-a-Service, reporting an estimated savings of $15.7 million, on an investment of $4 million, over the next five years.
USAID's strong EA capabilities drove these cost savings. The agency used its architecture plan to select a shared services center as part of a broader data center consolidation initiative, and the architecture team pushed for cloud-based email based upon an ROI analysis for consolidating multiple installations of the previous email solution. This analysis quantified savings in hardware and software maintenance, among other expenses, providing a solid business case for the proposed changes.
You Can't Manage What You Can't Measure
USAID shows a different side of EA than many organizations see. Far too often, EA becomes an exercise in generating copious quantities of documentation of dubious business value. In other organizations, the supposed EA effort is buried deep within the IT department and thus has little influence over how the organization as a whole achieves its strategic goals. Of course, many organizations' EA efforts suffer from both pitfalls at once.
Fundamentally, USAID's success with EA sets the standard for how EA is supposed to facilitate business goals—not only within the federal government, but for any organization with an EA program. As USAID has illustrated, EA done properly drives business value in measurable, verifiable terms.
As the familiar management adage says, you can't manage what you can't measure. USAID's approach to EA establishes both appropriate business-centric metrics and the internal processes and governance necessary to conduct the corresponding measurements.
The end result: USAID executive management now has the luxury to run the organization by leveraging IT resources aligned with the dynamic goals of the organization. In short, it's not the inflexible money sink found in far too many enterprise IT shops today. Taxpayer can also rest assured knowing that foreign aid can improve economic conditions in the developing world, fight terrorism at its root and further American foreign policy goals without inefficient legacy IT environments soaking up those funds.