WASHINGTON — Much like their counterparts in the private sector, federal CIOs are feeling a budget squeeze as they are expected to deliver a higher level of service and press ahead with ambitious cloud and data-center-consolidation initiatives with flat or even declining resources at their disposal.
In a keynote address here at the annual FOSE government IT conference, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel explained that after a decade of roughly 7 percent growth, the federal IT budget leveled off in 2009, forcing CIOs to reassess their approach to new technology deployments.
“We’re at this amazing inflection point,” said VanRoekel, a Microsoft veteran who joined the federal government in 2009, holding positions at U.S. Agency for International Development and the Federal Communications Commission before being tapped to serve as the country’s second CIO last August.
CIOs in both the public and private sectors have a common responsibility for operations and maintenance and delivering new products and features, VanRoekel noted, but in business, the usual pattern is to wind down old projects to make room for new ones, a budget-sensitive model that reapportions scarce resources without necessarily increasing overall expenditures.
“In government we don’t have depreciation. We don’t have a culture of take from the old and give to the new,” he said. That has meant that rather than retiring or refurbishing old deployments, agencies have tended to rely on steady upticks in their IT budgets.
“That’s how we’ve grown,” VanRoekel added. “Suddenly the pie stops growing and the growth slows down.”
Now, VanRoekel is presiding over a government-wide overhaul of federal IT that is being driven by a confluence of factors, ranging from the consumerization of the enterprise and increased consumer expectations to the rise of cloud computing and cybersecurity concerns, all with the understanding that budgets will remain tight as lawmakers pursue measures to reduce the deficit.
VanRoekel described the escalating degree of service that citizens and government workers expect from federal IT systems. In part, that expectation comes from the proliferation of user-friendly online applications and services. After all, in the era of Amazon and Expedia, why would a person be satisfied with an agency that allows users to download a form but then requires them to submit it in-person at an office?
“Citizens across the board expect more,” he said. “We’re at an inflection point where the consumerization of technology and technology generally is just going to roll over us from the standpoint of government.”
Data is at the center of that mission. With some 1,700 dot-gov websites, the federal government is awash in data that the public can access, but unless that information is machine readable and easily searchable, it is of little practical benefit for the average citizen.
“No one can find it. Data’s just sort of lost in the mire of government,” VanRoekel said. “Data is the core of everything we do and deliver.”
Clearly, VanRoekel is looking to harness technology to achieve a more service-driven government operation, but he is doing so while also pressing agencies to eliminate duplicative systems and consolidate data centers.
Just last week, the Office of Management and Budget launched a tool, called PortfolioStat, that agencies will use to comb through their IT portfolios for wasteful or duplicative operations in a mandatory review process.
“We need to drive just maniacally inside these agencies to streamline this stuff,” VanRoekel said.
VanRoekel is also leading efforts to consolidate federal data centers, with the ambitious goal of a 40 percent facility reduction as departments and agencies migrate to cloud-based systems.
Amid those endeavors, VanRoekel is also seeking to enhance the profile of the federal CIO. Just as he is encouraging federal IT workers to break down silos between disparate legacy systems within various government organizations, he is urging CIOs to align their work with the broader aims of their agencies, echoing the movement underway in the private sector that seeks to achieve closer coordination between IT and business groups.
“Our mission needs to be the mission. We tend to spend a lot of time talking about technology.” VanRoekel said “At the end of the day, our mission is really about service delivery — how is the function of the CIO kind of bridging the gap between the technical capabilities and the business requirements of the organization to really provide better service to Americans, more efficient employees, cybersecurity and other things?”
To that end, very shortly after VanRoekel took office, OMB issued a directive granting CIOs new authorities to implement the reforms needed to eliminate outdated or redundant systems as the federal government continues to refashion its approach IT after the private sector.
“The role of the CIO often in agencies is one that actually doesn’t have authority over most of the agency or all of the agency,” VanRoekel said, noting that the reforms are an ongoing process. In some cases, CIOs who rose to the agency level, perversely found themselves with less budget and decision-making authority than when they served as leaders at the bureau level, resulting in a balkanizing effect that has produced dramatic inconsistencies throughout the government’s IT operations. “That’s just wrong,” VanRoekel said. “We need a holistic view across these agencies.”
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.