The Obama administration yesterday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas unveiled an ambitious new initiative to remake the way the federal government approaches mobile technology, soliciting ideas from the public for how federal agencies can tap mobile devices and apps to operate more efficiently and better serve citizens.
U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel announced the program at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a symbolic setting that amplifies the theme of the federal government taking its cues on IT from the most innovative quarters of the private sector.
Pledging to "make this year the year of mobile," VanRoeckel acknowledged that federal agencies have lagged behind the private sector in wireless technology, owing to a constellation of factors including a glacial procurement and in-house development process and an IT culture that has been slow to warm up to many of the new technologies and computing models that private-sector CIOs have already embraced.
"We have a real opportunity I think to bring to bear mobile technology in the federal government in a way that really changes the paradigm," said VanRoeckel, a former Microsoft executive who is only the second person to serve as U.S. CIO, a position President Obama created in his first year in office.
The mobility effort comes with the same broad goals that have accompanied earlier tech initiatives the administration has advanced, seeking to break down IT silos among the various departments and agencies, foster public-private partnerships, lower costs and improve services and efficiencies.
Additionally, VanRoeckel emphasized that citizen engagement is a crucial part of the mobile agenda. Using the IdeaScale platform, the government is asking members of the public to submit ideas, which users can then vote up or down in a Digg-like model. Visitors are also encouraged to share use cases describing experiences within their own organization about how mobile technologies have effectively been used to cut costs or improve productivity.
VanRoeckel's team plans to close the IdeaScale submission page on Jan. 20, at which point officials will weigh the suggestions, along with the recommendations from the new Federal Mobility Strategy Task Force and other input as they develop the first draft of the mobile strategy.
Once the report is finalized, the officials overseeing the effort will set their sights on other goals, such as procurement overhaul and, farther down the road, crafting a policy for the federal approach to mobile apps and outreach to the developer community.
VanRoeckel emphasized that he is working to make the government more agile as federal IT managers grapple with the same prevailing trends that have been transforming the private sector, namely the consumerization of IT, the migration to the cloud and, of course, the increasing reliance on mobile devices.
Along the way, the feds will have a series of significant details to work out, such as the selection of a common mobile platform and setting the terms of a usage agreement and certification criteria for outside developers. VanRoeckel said that the mobile plan will endeavor to remain "device-agnostic," adding that he favors the model that many developers have embraced, writing the core of their app in HTML 5, and then tailoring it to the various competing mobile operating systems to ensure the broadest distribution across devices.
VanRoeckel, an August appointee, said that one of his overarching goals is to make the federal government operate more in a "lean startup way." That includes an ongoing effort to evaluate federal data centers for potential closure or consolidation. The government currently maintains about 3,000 data centers around the country, and is aiming to close a third of those by 2015.
"My office has been leading the charge on the shift to the cloud," he said. "We really need to shift from a CapEx-intensive model to an OpEx model."
Before VanRoeckel stepped into his current role, the Obama administration had announced a so-called "cloud first" policy, directing agencies considering new IT initiatives to give cloud solutions precedence in the evaluation process.
He is also working to address the fragmentation across departments and agencies that has led to an excessively complex and diffuse IT landscape ripe with inefficiencies. The Department of Agriculture, for instance, had until recently been running 21 distinct email systems, VanRoeckel said. Now the department is down to one, operating at a third of the cost.
The annual federal IT budget runs around $80 billion. VanRoeckel stressed that one of his core goals for 2012 will be to maximize the ROI from that hefty line item in the budget. To that end, last month he rolled out the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP, directing all agency CIOs to adopt a standardized framework for conducting security assessments, authorizations and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services, an approach billed as "do once, use many times."
Responsibility for ongoing monitoring for cyber threats and vulnerabilities will be consolidated within the Department of Homeland Security.
"Across the federal government we'll have one view of our cyber stance," he said.
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.