White House details sweeping changes to federal computing

The 40-page strategy directs agency IT leaders to follow a 'cloud first' policy and evaluate the practicality of leasing access to Web-based equipment before buying new hardware or software.

The government's chief information officer on Thursday detailed proposals for some of the most sweeping changes to hit federal computing since the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act created agency CIO jobs. Most of the 25-point action plan revolves around trying to establish a so-called modular approach to launching new applications, in which system features are available for federal personnel to use every six months instead of at the end of the current billion-dollar, multiyear development process.

"Think about an OpenTable for data centers," said federal CIO Vivek Kundra, referring to the popular website that lets diners book restaurant reservations online.

The 40-page strategy directs agency IT leaders to follow a "cloud first" policy, in which they must evaluate the practicality of leasing access to Web-based equipment before buying new hardware or software. Each agency is required to pick three "must move" services within three months, transition one of those services to the cloud within a year and shift the remaining two within 18 months. Speaking at a White House event in front of federal managers and members of the IT community, Kundra said by 2015 he wants to shrink the number of federal data centers by about 40 percent, or wind down 800 of the government's 2,100 costly, environmentally unfriendly server farms.

Within 18 months, the Obama administration will set up a governmentwide marketplace to match agencies that have extra server capacity with departments that are experiencing an increase in data demand.

Such steps are a reaction to what the administration sees as a disconnect between the way the government adopts new technologies and how the commercial world wields the power of innovation. Productivity gains in the private sector have outpaced government performance even though agencies spent about $600 billion during the past decade on technology to boost efficiency, White House officials said on Thursday.

On Nov. 19, the administration unveiled a general policy roadmap for dismantling the old method of installing new technology -- which is to design overly ambitious systems that become antiquated -- and instead embracing methods that modernize equipment quickly and cheaply. The strategy entails outsourcing IT to the cloud; synchronizing upgrade schedules with congressional spending schedules; hiring professional IT program managers; allowing communication between federal managers and vendors; and convening meetings with agency leaders and project managers to evaluate projects.

The planned effort has the backing of powerful congressional overseers, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and the Senate committee's ranking Republican, Susan Collins of Maine. But the spending changes will require buy-in from congressional appropriators on roughly 20 House and Senate subcommittees who set each agency's annual budget.

"Think about the time it takes ... to look at the crystal ball and figure out what you're going to be doing two years out and think about the life span of the average CIO [tenure], which is about 24 months," Kundra said. "We're going to work closely with Congress to figure out how we can align the budget with modular development."

He would prefer that appropriators grant CIOs authority over all back-office, commodity IT services, such as e-mail, content management systems and Web infrastructure. Currently, Congress divvies the funds, totaling $24 billion annually governmentwide, among agencies, bureaus and even programs within each department, leading to duplicative systems. The fact that the Interior Department has 200 data centers "doesn't make sense, and the reason is the way the department is funded," Kundra said.

Within the next six months, OMB will negotiate with Congress to analyze existing working capital funds, or revolving funds for managing common administrative services, and other accounts for pooling appropriations and making them available to CIOs for several years out. A number of agencies have such authorities but aren't taking advantage of them, White House officials said.

Kundra said the Veterans Affairs Department, one of the only agencies where the CIO has expansive budget authority, recently tried an incremental approach to modernizing its benefits system after unsuccessfully spending a decade on the project. Now, new functions are coming online every six months to ensure retired military members receive their disability compensation and education money in a timely fashion, he added.

Another item in the execution plan commits the government to canceling or redoing at least one-third of the underperforming projects in the government's $80 billion IT portfolio within the next 18 months. White House officials are teaming with department deputy secretaries and CIOs to create mini TechStat sessions, which are meetings that Kundra has been holding with agency leaders to review troubled IT projects. The intra-agency sessions will bring together technology managers and technology users to fix failing projects.

"Rather than trying to lead with a memo, what we're going to be leading with is execution," Kundra said. The administration will revamp IT budget submissions known as OMB Exhibits 53 and 300, so that they look like management blueprints rather than justifications for spending, according to the plan outlined on Thursday.

Officials argue a lack of skilled program managers and contracting officers has exacerbated the government's outdated approach to IT. "Over the next six months, we're going to be arranging a formal career path for program managers that includes direct hiring authority," Kundra said. "OMB will only approve funding for IT programs that actually have a dedicated program manager." The Office of Personnel Management will coordinate with the departments of Treasury and Agriculture to pilot an IT program management career track. The plan notes that the Social Security Administration already has a multitiered career track for program managers, in which staff are promoted by gaining experience on small projects and then advancing to larger, more complex programs.

The IT agenda also calls for creating a cohort of acquisition professionals with the specialized knowledge and experience required to accelerate IT procurements governmentwide. During the next six months, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and Kundra will determine what training and certifications the acquisition officers will need, as well as how the employees will progress from entry-level professional to senior contributor.

Within a year, the administration will launch a technology fellows program patterned after the Presidential Management Fellows program, which taps graduate students interested in public policy leadership for on-the-job training. The tech fellows program will recruit scholars for potential careers in IT program management.

In an interview, former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who once chaired the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, praised the administration for the thought it has put into this endeavor. Executing the strategy, however, could be tricky due to factors outside the executive branch's control, such as congressional politics. "By and large, they are common sense steps," said Davis, now director of federal government affairs for Deloitte & Touche LLP. "But changes take time ... Even getting the workforce part implemented is a tough issue. It takes a long time to find them, to train them and get them up and running. It's easier on paper sometimes than it is to attract them and keep them. But I applaud the fact that they are addressing this."

White House officials say they expect the IT industry to assist in all the transformations. OFPP Administrator Dan Gordon will lead a "myth busters" educational campaign aimed at engaging contractors during the pre-solicitation phase of procurements. "Unfortunately, there's a chilling effect across the government where they think they're going to go to jail if you talk to vendors before putting out the [request for proposals]," Kundra said.

This summer, the administration will start a website where industry and agency contracting officials can collaborate prior to the issuance of RFPs.

Some in attendance on Thursday raised questions about the plan's priorities, given the tight economic climate and security risks.

Paul Brubaker, who helped draft the Clinger-Cohen Act and now serves as a senior director with Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group, asked whether the government has made the necessary financial commitments to train program managers and IT acquisition specialists.

"Money is a challenge," Gordon acknowledged. "Budgets are very tight, and they are not going to get easier as we move into the new calendar year."

Defense Department CIO Teri Takai requested that the White House focus more on information security in its plan. "We really look at the whole security and the cybersecurity aspects as being as important as our efficiency drives and our cost drives," she said. Kundra noted President Obama last year completed a cyber policy review and has since moved forward on recommendations that came out of the report.

The IT community generally cheered the government's pursuit of drastic changes. TechAmerica, an industry group, and the Professional Services Council, a contractor association, both support the action plan.