Budget constraints can kill IT innovation … but only if you let them

Focusing too much on costs can result in a race to the bottom, says Chad Sheridan, CIO of USDA's Risk Management Agency. Instead, Federal CIOs (who know a thing or two about working in a budget-challenged environment) are looking to a smarter approach for delivering deliver IT value.

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It's often taken as received wisdom that federal CIOs are limited in the ways that they marshal new technology initiatives to improve their agencies' missions because they don't have the budget to be effective.

That's not the view at the Department of Transportation.

"I don't want any money. I don't need any money," DoT CIO Vicki Hildebrand said during a recent panel discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I know that is not a very common thing that you hear from people in government. We have a lot of spend out there we need to spend more wisely."

To Hildebrand, who spent more than three decades at Hewlett-Packard before decamping to Washington, the government could take a cue from the private sector when it comes to accelerating development and projects like replacing legacy IT, which continues to pervade departments and agencies.

"We have a lot of legacy systems, and we do not yet have a good runway for building new systems," Hildebrand said. "I shocked the team last week by doing some business requirements and putting together a prototype a week. They're used to multiple years and millions of dollars, so we're going to change that culture."

Many federal IT executives argue that a smarter approach to technology involves consolidating duplicative, commodity systems like email or the help desk within large agencies so they could be provisioned out in a shared services model.

That kind of coordination would nurture a healthier dynamic between the CIO at the helm of a large enterprise, like the Department of Agriculture, and its many component units, according to Chad Sheridan, CIO of USDA's Risk Management Agency.

"We have the mantra of departmental CIOs should be looking at giving us better ability to drive common solutions for common systems, therefore freeing us up to go drive mission," Sheridan said. "Because when you sit in a mission area or a component-level agency or bureau, your phone is ringing off the hook on mission issues. You don't really want to be spending time worrying about the help desk."

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