Deputy Federal CIO on Fate of Trump-era IT Policies


The Office of American Innovation, Cloud Smart and the Federal Reskilling Academy are some of Trump-era tech policies left behind. Now the Biden team must decide what to do with them. 

The incoming Biden administration and outgoing Trump administration both made modernizing the federal government’s IT infrastructure a priority. But the nascent Biden presidency has yet to make its mark on a host of Trump-era IT policies and programs.

The Biden administration recently appointed its first federal chief information officer, Clare Martorana, who, once up to speed on all active programs and ongoing issues, will set the IT agenda for the rest of government.

But improving federal technology tends to be one of the last truly nonpartisan issues in Washington, and Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat believes that extends to the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer.

In a recent interview with Nextgov, Roat highlighted some short-term objectives for federal IT modernization and spoke to the fate of several initiatives held over from the last administration.

One of the most visible Trump-era programs, the Technology Modernization Fund, just received a major influx of cash—$1 billion—included in the latest COVID-19 relief bill. With that kind of congressional support, the program certainly isn’t going anywhere, though Roat said there are changes afoot.

“We’ve had a lot of success with the program so far,” she said. “With the influx in funding, we’re going to be able to do even more for the federal government, and how we serve up our citizens.”

The fund, in its current iteration, awards loans to agency projects with three- to five-year payback schedules meant to keep the fund flush and ready to support more projects. But the Biden team’s request to Congress for more TMF money included a proposal to eliminate that payback model for some of the most critical IT modernization needs.

While eliminating the payback model in some instances would be a significant change to the structure of the program, Roat said OMB is positioned to make those changes without additional help from Congress.

“I don't see that there's any legislation that's needed for the program in and of itself,” she said. “We've got processes in place already for the reviews for proposals as they come in.”

The process for doling out funds may change, as well, Roat said.

Currently, federal programs looking for funding assistance prepare a detailed pitch for the TMF Board, made up of federal technologists from across government, including Roat. After multiple rounds of questioning, the board picks projects for funding and approves the payback models.

That process will continue for most projects, Roat said. However, the $1 billion in funding was meant to target governmentwide problems, particularly with respect to agencies’ responses to the pandemic and major cybersecurity vulnerabilities like those seen in the SolarWinds and Microsoft Exchange hacking campaigns.

“You make your pitch to the board for a solution—we're still going to have a lot of that,” she said. “But in turn, we are also looking federalwide at what big programs and projects could perhaps make an impact just broadly across the federal government … making sure that we continue with the sustained IT modernization, cybersecurity, all of those tenants, and making sure that we're continuing on that path.”

One program that didn’t make the transition to the Biden White House was the Office of American Innovation.

The effort led by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner produced few public results during its four years in operation. The office helped develop the last administration’s IT Modernization Plan and establish the Centers of Excellence within the General Services Administration—both accomplished in its first year of existence.

“That was certainly with the prior administration,” Roat said when asked about OAI’s fate.

She said the office was closed down during the transition and there are no current plans to revive it or something similar to take its place.

While OAI is no more, most of the remaining major IT-focused programs will stick around, at least in some iteration.

What Comes After ‘Cloud Smart’

Roat said the government’s push to close data centers and move applications to the cloud will continue and the Trump-era Cloud Smart remains the central guiding policy.

“Moving to the cloud, taking advantage of the cloud capabilities, just the technology space: Everybody builds on everybody else's prior work. Technology is pretty agnostic,” she said. “It's not political. Technology is going to keep evolving, and CIOs are going to take advantage of that technology.”

Technology is constantly evolving, Roat said, but on its own track, separate from the political priorities those systems are built to deliver.

“The expectation is there, whether you're focused on climate change or any of those things, you're going to take advantage of technology, you're going to take advantage of the compute power that the cloud offers to be able to serve up on this mission,” she said.

Federal Reskilling Academy Still in Session

While Cloud Smart was an iterative progression from the Obama-era Cloud First, the Trump administration’s plan to retrain federal employees to serve in IT and cybersecurity roles was a wholly new effort.

The Federal Reskilling Academy is still going strong, Roat said, with a class feds about to graduate from the data science program.

“I'm pretty excited about this one because we took—there was a lot of applicants—and we selected 61 people to go through the training program,” Roat said. “These were people who already were working in data—data analysts—and the intent was to really bring them through a six-month program to upskill them to be data scientists, and they'll be graduating in the next month or so.”

The program will finish with students completing capstone projects showcasing advanced data science techniques, with the goal of reproducing these projects to benefit agencies and programs across government.

Roat said OMB will assess those projects as they roll out, both to gauge the potential to scale across government and determine the next steps for the Reskilling Academy going forward.

But the initial wave of students in the first cohort—trained for low-level cybersecurity jobs—hit a roadblock: the General Schedule. While students emerged from the program with new skills, the strict structure of federal workforce hierarchy prevented them from transitioning to cybersecurity jobs. Those kinks have yet to be worked out

Shared Services Through Quality Service Management Offices

Another effort unique to the Trump administration was the push to consolidate shared services for four areas—finance, payroll, grants administration and cybersecurity—under single Quality Service Management Offices, or QSMOs.

The push differed from past shared services efforts by designating a single agency to manage a “marketplace” for the service being offered. Under the current shared services structure, various agencies offer services, which other agencies and programs can purchase on a fee-for-service basis. Payroll services, for example, are currently offered by four major federal agencies.

Under the new construct, services are consolidated under the designated QSMO, which offers fee-for-service options, as well as a set of pre-vetted commercial contracts and a set of standards if agencies want to go their own way.

The fourth QSMO lead was designated right at the end of the Trump administration, and the work will continue on that trajectory for the time being, Roat said.

“We saw a lot of success with the QSMOs getting started through the last administration,” she said, noting the new political leadership, including Martorana, is just starting to look at how the offices are functioning. “Whether we call it the QSMOs or something else, I see that work continuing because shared services is important to the federal government as we look at it as an enterprise and how we operate.”

But the exact nature of the QSMO program going forward—as with all federal IT programs—remains up in the air for now.

“Right now, we're getting all the new folks that are coming on board up to speed … briefing them on current status and the like, so that everybody's at least informed on when and where the projects are,” Roat said. “With a change in administrations, you’ve got to get the new folks up to speed … and make sure that there's general agreement and alignment to the overall Biden administration strategy moving forward.”