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Contractors call for new agency to push cutting-edge IT

The incoming administration should form an independent agency that would serve as a think tank to identify innovative uses of information technology for government projects, an organization of federal IT contractors told the Obama transition team on Friday.

In a series of white papers, the Industry Advisory Council recommended that President-elect Barack Obama form a Government Innovation Agency, where federal executives would work together to learn how to apply advanced technologies to agencies' projects and programs.

"We're not recommending a huge, new bureaucracy, but an integrated environment where people rotate in from agencies, get training and insight on best practices, and build a business case collaboratively that would solve a particular problem," said Mark Forman, chairman of the council's transition study group, which developed a series of white papers to advise the Obama administration on federal IT management.

One of the papers, Returning Innovation to the Federal Government with Information Technology, specifically recommended the formation of the innovation agency.

Centers of excellence in the agency would focus on specific government operations and bring together federal managers from across government to identify problem areas and to develop solutions using IT. A center of excellence for health IT, for example, could include managers from the Defense, Health and Human Services, and Veterans Affairs departments, as well as the Social Security Administration to work on creating standards for electronic health records.

Once the group develops a business case, an advisory board in the innovation agency would evaluate the risks and returns and provide feedback. Initiatives would be developed before funding is allocated. The innovation agency would assign approved business cases to a lead federal agency, which would then receive the funding for the project.

The goal of the Government Innovation Agency would be to eliminate isolated or redundant databases, computer systems and business processes that agencies created during many years for their own needs.

"That approach fit government very well, because agencies could create their own cocoons and be very comfortable," said Forman, who is a partner at the consulting firm KPMG and a former OMB administrator for e-government and information technology in the Bush administration. "But in the last couple of years we've had this split in technology that created two buckets of opportunity."

The knowledge era, according to the paper, relies on Web 2.0 technologies to enable mass collaboration. The process integration era relies on next-generation computing models, such as cloud computing and service-oriented architectures, to drive a universal IT environment and eliminate the silos of computer networks and databases.

The new administration also should be less risk-averse than previous administrations to promote innovation in agencies, according to the paper. Obama should designate a small percentage of projects as high risk, but with the potential of providing a high return, and managing them with a risk acceptance approach that "recognizes failures will occur," according to the paper.

"Government's portion of IT spending is now so large, we'd rather see it go to catalyze innovation, [but] many government employees are afraid to be the first users of technology because they'll get beat up if they don't deliver," Forman said. "We're not saying ignore risk; we're saying you have to approach it differently. Understand portfolio management and how to apply technology for the biggest payoff."

Other white papers released from the council focus on using federal IT strategically to strengthen the economy, and improving identity and access management. In the coming six months, the group plans to release another eight papers on topics such as disaster protection and response, health care, the integration of the Homeland Security Department, regulatory reform, financial management, and acquisition reform.

Obama's transition team plans to post the white papers to the transition Web site, change.gov, Forman said.

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