Redefining the Role of Federal CIO: The Enabler-in-Chief

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The key is modernizing systems will not be done in the same architectural model of the past.

Jerad Speigel is CEO of Phase One.

As President Donald Trump formalizes his tech team and the administration’s tech agenda, one of the most pressing questions within federal IT circles has come to a close center on modernization—will federal technology continue down the path to transformation? Early indications from the new Trump administration are positive, ranging from a series of remarks made by the president’s senior advisers, as well as early drafts of tech-related executive orders.

The Trump administration has a “once in a generation” opportunity to launch a radical transformation of IT systems. The forces of technology, political will, mission needs and cyber woes have led to this moment when IT transformation has its best chance to succeed in decades. Previous administrations had the will, but not the technology availability. Furthermore, today’s cyber and cost challenges force all our hands to move swiftly to a newly designed era of federal IT.

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The key is that transformation of systems will not be done in the same architectural model of the past. Today’s expensive, outdated IT systems were built in an entirely different era where IT systems were built on stacks of technologies that required significant operations and maintenance efforts, hence our current O&M conundrum in federal IT. Furthermore, these legacy layers of technologies all have security vulnerabilities. Armies of cyber patch personnel cannot stop all the vulnerabilities, hence our current cyber conundrum in federal IT.

Rebuilding federal’s legacy systems will be done in the cloud, using modern platform-as-a-service technologies. The administration’s IT agenda, policies, corresponding legislation and selection of new IT leadership needs to be firmly built on the foundation of PaaS in the cloud. The time for arguing is over. If you are not leveraging PaaS as the foundation of your IT transformation efforts, you are doing it wrong—right for 2001; but wrong for 2017 and beyond. Leadership is key, and chief information officers will be most successful if we reshape their mission in a radical way.

Redefine the CIO Role as 'Enabler-in-Chief'

While it’s hard to think of a time when technology wasn’t one of the central topics of the D.C. policy establishment, the role of the CIO in federal is a relatively new development. When CIOs were introduced as a role, IT was in a completely different space. The need, based on technology of the time, was to gain control of IT centrally.

Over time, this has not succeeded for many reasons, but more importantly, technology has changed. Where we once needed to centralize authorities to stop the proliferation of servers, data centers and unpatched software, we now have the luxury of having all of that managed for us in the cloud.

For years, CIOs have wanted IT to be consolidated, centralized, cheaper, safer and have fewer technologies in use. In many ways, our goals for IT and the role of the CIO were well ahead of the capabilities of the technologies available. These days, modern PaaS in the cloud gives the IT community the ability to centralize, consolidate, lower costs, improve cybersecurity and standardize technologies. PaaS breaks down barriers by providing a cost-effective application development platform, managed as a service.

The corralling of staff, technology layers, patching, and maintenance all goes away. CIOs can suddenly concentrate on missions over logistics and maintenance. Taken a step further, PaaS gives CIOs the chance to relax efforts to centralize, and instead push PaaS options to the missions and allow the missions to innovate within their own ranks.

For too long, we have asked the CIOs to be the “IT cop," focusing on compliance and inevitably being forced to focus on telling people what they can’t do. Agency CIOs are too often forced into daily compliance drills, terrified of running afoul of the rules or missing a data call. This talent base wants to be set free to innovate and lead. I contend that the role of the CIO should be less about compliance and more about enabling change.

The daily activities of the CIO should be focused on providing the tools and assistance to the missions so the missions can drive modernization. Imagine a scenario where the CIOs are empowered to encourage missions to build more of their own applications, eschew efforts to centralize and applaud the proliferation of apps built “in the field." In a traditional hosted stack architecture, this is impossible to imagine. When leveraging a PaaS-based architecture, the CIO can deliver the platform and simply allow innovation in the missions to take root and flourish.

The goal of the new era for CIOs should be to put modern cloud-based platforms into the hands of mission leaders who are closest to the customer; eliminating the concept of centralized management of IT. CIOs need to procure the licensing and services, and then “give” these licensing and services to missions and offices so the missions and offices can get down to the business of re-building solutions in the cloud.

Most mission organizations have always operated their own systems and trying to centralize that knowledge is a fruitless exercise. Providing mission system owners with the support and modern platforms they need to modernize is the missing link in the IT transformation story.

Leadership Starts with OMB

We’re living in the age of innovation, where people are leveraging technology and modern web-based platforms to bring applications to life. With more automated resources available to help streamline formerly tedious processes, it’s critical for IT leaders to foster innovation throughout their agencies.

The federal government has made great strides in establishing a culture of digital acceptance. But the job doesn’t stop at a culture shift. To be effective in transforming government IT, the Office of Management and Budget must set the tone through policy and guidance. As the administration moves forward, OMB should lead IT transformation in radical ways. Here are three ways that OMB can lead IT transformation forward:

  1. Issue new guidance to redefine the role of agency CIOs. Give the CIOs clear top cover to serve missions in new and radical ways; by decentralizing IT application development through the use of standard cloud-based PaaS technologies.
  2. Mandate the timely rebuilding of certain categories of legacy systems. Furthermore, mandate the use of modern cloud-based platform technologies for all future system development for anything deemed FISMA moderate or bellow.
  3. Mandate a 25-percent reduction in all O&M spending by 2020. Meet regularly with agencies to hear the obstacles and clear those obstacles immediately.

Let’s once again use OMB policy to shape the future of IT and the role of the CIO. Keeping talented CIOs should be easy if we simply make their jobs actionable again. Most CIOs I know have hopes and dreams for the missions within their agencies. Wide, sweeping policy designed to adopt PaaS-centered transformation, and to enable CIOs to operate in a more modern enablement posture will help drive organic IT transformation within agencies. Top talent will thrive, costs will go down, cybersecurity will be improved and missions will feel truly enabled by the CIO partners.