by Kenneth Corbin

Department of Labor Doing IT Consolidation, Centralization Amid Tight Budget

News Analysis
Aug 28, 20145 mins
Data CenterGovernmentGovernment IT

The Department of Labor has a history of semi-autonomous agencies running their own IT shops. That's beginning to change thanks to a push toward consolidating and standardizing infrastructure and applications.

Dawn Leaf spends a lot of time thinking about consolidation. The deputy CIO at the Department of Labor, described a series of ongoing efforts at her organization to consolidate and standardize the IT operations in place at an array of agencies across the department during an appearance on Federal News Radio and an online question-and-answer session.

The Department of Labor is still moving from a federated environment, she says: “We still don’t centrally manage all IT resources.” But that’ s changing.

When Labor embarked on its infrastructure consolidation initiative two years ago, the department’s CIO office only managed IT for only around 4,000 of its 17,000 employees and contractors. At that time, Leaf says, there were nine distinct, siloed infrastructure environments.

By the end of this year, the central CIO office is on track to support IT for 14,000 members of the department’s workforce, with plans to have in place a “single, consolidated infrastructure” for all 17,000 employees and contractors by 2016.

“We’re getting to the end of the curve,” Leaf says.

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Adding to that challenge is the decentralized nature of the Labor Department’s workforce. More than half of the workers are based outside of Washington, in more than 500 field offices. What’s more, many of the DoL’s 28 agencies have historically developed their own IT systems and operated as semi-autonomous islands within the organization. That has made department-wide transitions, such as the move from Windows XP to Windows 7 and the subsequent deployment of Microsoft’s Office 365 suite of cloud apps, particularly labor-intensive.

Included in the department’s top-to-bottom infrastructure overhaul is an effort to trim the number of data centers the department maintains, part of the government-wide data center consolidation initiative. To date, Labor has shuttered 18 facilities, while opening one consolidated data center in Maryland, just outside of D.C., according to Leaf.

As the definition of what constitutes a data center can vary widely across departments and agencies, so, too, does the definition of data center consolidation “progress.” Moreover, simply transporting racks from one facility to another doesn’t serve the goals of improving server utilization and reducing energy consumption if CIOs aren’t taking the time to evaluate their portfolio and determine which applications are candidates for virtualization and which could be turned over to a private vendor or another government agency in a shared-service model.

“You can make your numbers go up quickly if all you’re trying to do is hit the number. And you can do that by basically forklifting systems from one building or location to another without really improving their function,” Leaf says. “We ‘ve been making sure we do both at the same time – that before we move anything to the new data center that we’ve modernized it, that we have virtualized it, that we’ve considered whether we should even move it, whether in fact it makes more sense to outsource it or move to a shared service.”

Budget Looming Over IT Consolidation Efforts

As ever, funding considerations loom large over the Labor Department’s technology reform efforts. Ask around the federal government and you won’t find many IT managers who aren’t feeling the budget squeeze. Labor might have it worse than most.

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Leaf cites an OMB assessment of IT investments at large agencies that found that Labor had one of the lowest rates of technology spending as a proportion of the total budget. She maintains that the department is at the “low end of the diminishing returns curve,” meaning that Labor garners a strong payoff for every dollar it spends on technology.

Until more of those dollars materialize, though, there are hard limits on the initiatives that can be undertaken. “Our biggest challenge is that we’ve had a historically low IT investment rate as a percent of the overall DoL budget,” Leaf says. “There comes a point where process improvement only gets you so far and you really do have to make an investment.”

Leaf, who acknowledges that “change is hard for the agencies,” has helped organize several working groups to bring together CIOs and IT managers from the various divisions to get the different arms of the Labor Department on the same page.

One is the enterprise implementation council, which Leaf describes as a “steering committee” that offers a forum where agency leaders can discuss the overarching direction of the department’s tech operation. In a department as large as Labor, though, and at a time when the central CIO’s office has a long and growing list of IT goals, the design and implantation of an enterprise architecture remains a work in progress.

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Leaf’s office has been working to address enterprise architecture in the context of first priorities, placing areas such as mobility and cross-department data modeling at the front of the line. Still, with an uncertain funding picture, the department is trying to keep its expectations reasonable for the pace and scale of change.

“The IT space is so broad that I think it’s not reasonable for any organization to pretend they can throw a bunch of smart people in a room and come up with a target architecture. What you do is you focus on what you need first,” she says. “We’re defining all those things so that, when and if we get the funding, we can go right out of the box … If we don’t get the funding, we would still pursue it, but much more slowly.”