Hint: It's not the technology itself.
The government’s ability to capitalize on emerging technologies comes down to three elements: people, processes and the technology itself, described by Commerce Department Deputy Chief Information Officer Kirit Amin as a “three-legged stool.”
Yet, only one of those legs – technology – is a relatively straightforward endeavor to tackle.
“Tech is the easiest,” Amin said, speaking today on a panel at the 2014 Federal Forum in in Washington, D.C.
Technology tends to evolve in the commercial sector, and cloud computing, virtualized environments, analytics and big data, mobility and software-defined networking, for example, have matured to the point that government wants to spend some of its $80 billion-plus IT budget on them.
Yet, it’s people and processes that pose the biggest challenges to how quickly the government can use emerging technologies. The government wants the digital technology of tomorrow -- with procurement policies written decades ago, when typewriters ruled the day and people actually knew what microfilm was.
“One of the problems we have implementing SDNs is, think about acquisition and how that’s done,” said Alissa Johnson, deputy chief information officer in the Office of Administration in the Executive Office of the President. “None of that embraces this type of [forward] thinking. None of it embraces new technology. I can’t pay for something that doesn’t have a finite end, and that’s very difficult for me.”
In one hypothetical example, Johnson suggested sharing services such as cloud computing with another agency such as the General Services Administration. Standard budgeting processes make such endeavors far from a cut and dry process, she said, even if the end result is thought to reduce costs and increase efficiencies.
“It’s very difficult for me to do that,” Johnson added.
Standard policies don’t embrace open source platforms, either, Johnson added. Most government IT solutions incorporate some open source code – and in some cases, large quantities of it – but the reality is that federal policy isn’t friendly to open source.
“I need to make sure I am following policies, processes and procedures of government, but policies don’t embrace open source,” Johnson said, responding to an audience question.
Ron Bewtra, chief technology officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said “regulation and policy is not keeping up” for government as a whole. For individual projects and organizations, old policies can be sufficient. Overall, however, government lags in these areas.
“By the time policies are approved, something else [in tech] is coming out,” Bewtra said.
The third leg – people – affects the government’s use and implementation of technology in two ways. On one hand, Bewtra said, workforce culture plays a major role in technology decisions made within an agency. Does the organization take acceptable risks or is leadership content with the status quo? Is the culture resistant to change?
On the flip side, when policies do change and an organization decides, for instance, to close data centers and heavily invest in cloud computing, can its employees – its people – adjust and reinvent their skillsets? Data scientists and analysts are the hot commodity today systems administrators were in the 1990s. So can the current workforce adjust? Should it panic?
“The reality is that old technology is not going to die quickly, no matter what we say,” Bewtra said, noting his parents still diligently use their VHS recorder. “People don’t need to panic because something new came up.”
They’d better be ready to adapt, though.
“The CIO shop is going to change,” Johnson said. “I need data scientists, data managers. I need people who can write [application program interfaces] now. It’s a culture change and a mindset change, but really, is it change or is it reminding ourselves that we constantly have a responsibility to retool and stay relevant and keep our skills fresh?”
John Skudlarek, deputy chief information officer at the Federal Communications Commission, noted the White House’s newly launched U.S. Digital Services office and its TechFAR Handbook to help drive agencies toward more agile technology adoptions.
The tech market is now driving government to change, he said.
“The government used to drive the market, but the market is now clearly driving the government,” Skudlarek said. “They’re doing with commercial platforms what we in the government are following up on – what we’re trying to do.”