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CIOs are ahead of the curve on improving accountability

Several agency chief information officers say they were taking steps to hold themselves accountable to taxpayers, even before President Obama reminded them of their civic duty last week. They cited as evidence ongoing efforts to weed out underperforming information technology projects and to shrink data center footprints.

Obama on Sept. 14 sent his senior executives a message requesting they boost productivity by accomplishing a set of goals federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients outlined in a supplemental memo. The goals include closing the technology gap between the government and the private sector, cutting waste, and seeking innovations from the federal workforce and private sector. Progress will be tracked on a website called Performance.gov that, for example, will grade CIOs on their success at completing major IT projects and consolidating data centers.

Interior Department CIO Bernard Mazer has been developing a method of scrutinizing IT projects that is patterned after a governmentwide White House initiative, called TechStat, according to spokeswoman Jordan Montoya. The program, dubbed IStat, is analogous to the governmentwide process in that it looks for signs a project is headed off schedule, over budget or toward failure and responds by canceling the modernization or instituting heightened oversight, she said. Whereas TechStat involves in-person meetings between federal CIO Vivek Kundra and agency information chiefs, the Interior version will team senior Interior officials with project managers.

Mazer and Rhea S. Suh, Interior's assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, are cutting additional waste by identifying superfluous data centers, Montoya said. Of 426 potential candidates for elimination, 258 will be consolidated into five data centers. Officials opted to postpone combining the other facilities because the sites where the centers are located support unique department undertakings, or have poor connectivity. In addition, shuttering some of them could have resulted in potential negative returns on investments.

Veterans Affairs Department CIO Roger Baker said VA's top officials also have shown an ongoing commitment to ensuring IT investments are not squandered. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Baker initiated a program similar to TechStat in spring 2009, before Kundra began his review process in early 2010.

The pair halted 45 IT projects that were missing deadlines or busting budgets, and, after careful review, ultimately killed 12 and overhauled plans for the remaining 33. Now all IT projects -- even stellar performers -- must go through the examination procedure, called the project management accountability system. In an interview, Baker said he has metrics proving PMAS is effective that he will reveal to senators the first week of October.

"We started out in this administration at VA all over accountability," he said. "I want to be able to track from plan to budget to results."

Baker's future accountability efforts include a website that aligns with a cybersecurity requirement in the memo, which stipulates that executives shift from time-intensive, paper-based reporting of data breaches to continuous, automated monitoring. The site, which is slated to go live late this month, will provide information security managers with a window into the protection status of all electronics, Baker said.

The tool is about "visibility into the desktop" and "being able to see everything that's on our network," he added.

According to Zients' Sept. 14 memo, department heads also are responsible for using technology wisely. Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said Secretary Ray LaHood already has established a website that complies with the requirement that executives create mechanisms for federal employees to contribute ideas for improving agency operations. In August, he launched IdeaHub to tap the department's 55,000 employees for thoughts on potential spending reductions and other executive-level decisions, she said.

"We expect IdeaHub to lead to budget savings and increased productivity, increased engagement and workplace satisfaction, greater agility and collaboration within the department, and unfiltered information from our front lines," Alair said.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, senior executives already had taken steps to mimic private sector IT practices, spokeswoman Catherine C. Milbourn said. "EPA requires a professional approach to IT project management," which includes internal reviews of IT investments, she noted. As for downsizing federal server farms, EPA has planned to close some small computing rooms that are spread out nationwide, or reduce their physical size.

"EPA's senior executives have risen to this challenge of increased accountability and will continue to provide strong leadership in these areas," Milbourn said.

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