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Tech Triumphs in the Federal Government

Successful Case Studies Prove Government Can Be a Leader in IT Best Practices

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, had 21 unique email systems as recently as three years ago. Today a “cloud computing” initiative allows 120,000 USDA staff and support contractors to share a single integrated email system that costs less than $8 a month per user—a cost savings of almost 40 percent over the old fragmented system.

This success story was one of eight explored at a closed-door workshop on March 10, 2011, at the Center for American Progress. More than 120 senior government officials and IT industry representatives came together to share best practices and discuss how to scale them up across government.

“When I arrived in government, one of the things I was astonished to find was that there was no place I could go if I was struggling in an area,” said keynote speaker Richard Spires, chief information officer for the Department of Homeland Security. “Where are those experts that have been identified across government that can help me? I got a lot of blank stares.”

The workshop, convened by CAP to help U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra implement his 25-point reform agenda for federal IT management, was designed to identify the hard-to-find expertise from success stories in overcoming government IT challenges.

The federal government spends $80 billion on information technology each year. Much of this is spent on “legacy” systems that are now obsolete. But the case studies explored during the three-hour conference show that significant cost savings are possible if agencies share best practices: moving to cloud and light technologies, buying smarter, collapsing redundant layers of governance, and ramping up training of IT program managers.

Moving to the cloud

The push to consolidate IT purchasing and move to cloud computing, as in the Agriculture Department example, is expected to fundamentally shift federal spending in the next few years. Kundra estimates that the government should be spending $20 billion a year on cloud computing systems.

Senior IT officials are already convinced this move will deliver multiple benefits for the taxpayer. Charles McClam, the deputy chief information officer for the Department of Agriculture, says the new cloud-based system is already saving the taxpayer millions of dollars. “In addition to these lower costs, the new solution gives USDA more control over managing email,” McClam said, “leading to a heightened security posture and better records management.”

Centralizing funding pools

Another way budget managers have managed to overcome inefficiency of fragmented IT service providers is to concentrate all the appropriated money into centralized funding pools. The State Department chief information officer created a “Working Capital Fund” in 2007 that allowed 27 different internal organizations to buy fee-for-services computer systems from a single internal provider. The fund also allowed excess funds to be carried forward into future years’ funds to replace capital equipment when needed.

Fast-track governance

Other best practices put forward by participants showed that new projects can be implemented more quickly with buy-in from senior management. The 2008 “Post-9/11 GI Bill” required the creation of an IT system by the following year to provide higher education financial aid for eligible veterans or qualifying dependents. Creating a brand new IT system to support this bill would typically have taken more than 18 months because of the multiple bureaucratic decisions that take 60 days to 90 days each.

But the Veterans Administration got the benefits system up and running in nine months after Roger Baker, the department chief information officer, created an “integrated governance structure” that did away with the traditional ways of doing business. Among Baker’s innovations were a working group that met daily and an executive steering committee that met weekly to fast-track decisions. Baker also authorized the program manager to bypass the committees and come directly to him when necessary.

Incentives for professional certifications

Agencies have struggled with the lack of proper training for program managers to handle large-scale IT programs. In response, the Office of Personnel Management is soon expected to offer quicker promotions to federal employees who become certified “Project Management Professionals.” Some agencies, including the Social Security Administration, have already begun to provide specialized training for dozens of employees with the help of the Federal Acquisition Institute, which has allowed them to better manage major IT projects.

Data-driven reviews

Perhaps the hardest problem IT managers face is steering back on track existing projects that are over budget and behind schedule. The Office of Management and Budget has attempted to tackle this hurdle by setting up high-level data-driven reviews of such projects called TechStat sessions. Multiple agencies, including the Department of the Interior, are implementing similar internal reviews to identify problem projects more quickly. On March 17, Kundra testified that TechStat sessions for 26 major federal IT projects have resulted in $3 billion in savings and a reduction in time to delivery from two years to eight months.

“I recognize that there’s not a one size fits all. I recognize that what works for Homeland Security is not going to directly translate for the Small Business Administration,” said Spires, who is the former chair of the Best Practices Committee of the Federal Chief Information Officer Council. “But the essence, the principles, some of the tools and templates can.”

Pratap Chatterjee joined the Center for American Progress in September 2010 as a Visiting Fellow. His work at the Center focuses on federal procurement reform.

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