Fed IT transformation a no-brainer? Not so fast

Juggling competing priorities makes agency IT overhauls an often overwhelming exercise.

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Agencies today are facing a technological triple-threat of sorts: The FedRAMP deadline is nearing, leaving many scrambling to get up to speed on cloud; budget crunches have leaders looking toward alternatives like open-source capabilities; and achieving either relies heavily on organizations working together to get ahead. There is significant pressure to transform operations, but that does not happen overnight, nor does it happen in silos.

How can government leaders juggle these and other competing priorities? The key is understanding any given agency's individual assets and optimizing them going forward, officials said Feb. 6 at the Adobe Government Assembly in Arlington, Va.

At the forefront of the government's push toward IT transformation is the cloud, with promises of cost savings, agility and security. There is, however, debate as to whether cloud is truly the must-have that current trends paint it to be.

"As transformational and valuable as cloud is, it certainly shouldn’t be thought of as a no-brainer in the sense that every business and company has the obligation to do a business case analysis. ... There are lots of considerations privacy, management, the environments you have, and what's the demand profile you have?" said Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator at the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies. "It shouldn’t be done as a knee-jerk reaction, but as a careful data-driven decision."

Dan Doney, chief innovation officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, disagrees – to a degree, at least.

"The cloud is a no-brainer. For the entire enterprise? The jury's still out on that," Doney said. "Cloud is important, but it's not transformation unless you couple it with other things. The thinking that the cloud will dramatically reduce the cost of operation alone is flawed. Where the cloud meets the enterprise, we’re still weak across government."

As the FedRAMP June 5 deadline approaches, much work remains to be done at many agencies – something that can be overwhelming amid competing priorities. According to Conrad, leaders right now should be focused on bringing their organizations up to the FedRAMP baseline.

"Agencies ought to be doing a thorough inventory of the cloud services they're using and looking at the FedRAMP repository and leveraging those ATOs to bring their cloud up to that baseline," Conrad said. Additionally, providers should be working with their customers to make sure their services are optimized to meet FedRAMP requirements and can be leveraged many times across the government by multiple agencies.

Central to that will be another buzzword: collaboration. An absence of cooperation in best practices means that those leaping into the cloud must surmount an organizational chasm, as well as the absence of a guiding authority empowered to make change happen.

"The biggest gap is between strategy and execution – it’s a capability gap," said Census Bureau CTO Avi Bender.

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