Size puts no limit on ingenuity
- By Judi Hasson
- Sep 13, 2004
Microsoft's enterprise agreement with the small agencies
Technology workers at the Federal Trade Commission may not seem like they can perform miracles, but last year, they showed the technology community a thing or two about how to succeed.
With a small IT staff and an even smaller budget, they became the little engine
that could — a model for the rest of the
federal government. In just 90 days, they created the nation's first Do Not Call list to keep telemarketers from making
unsolicited calls to consumers, a service that relied heavily on technology.
"It was a very creative thing to do," said Stephen Warren, the FTC's chief information officer.
The agency provided the original technical work and managed the system in house. The system was self-supporting, with fees generated by telemarketers using the Do Not Call list. At the end of the day, an agency with an IT budget of $12 million and a staff of 40 accomplished what some bigger agencies have not: They successfully launched a government-to-citizen project in record time.
"In a small agency, things do happen," said Fernanda Young, CIO at the Export-Import Bank of the United States, a small federal agency that insures billions of dollars and is responsible for establishing the banking system in war-torn Iraq.
At conferences, seminars and congressional hearings, attention is always focused on the government's 24 largest agencies and their compliance with Office of Management and Budget requirements to meet their yearly budgets. And representatives from these agencies constitute the CIO Council.
The big agencies may be the major leaders in influencing governmentwide IT policies, but they are not alone.
Nearly 90 small agencies belong to the Small Agency CIO Council. Although they are not graded on the President's Management Agenda's quarterly score card, they are under similar requirements to make the case for IT investments.
Just like the big guys, these agencies must follow best practices, implement security and enterprise architecture plans,
and keep their customers happy. To do all that requires innovation and creativity, according to those who work with the small agencies.
Although most big agencies have many missions, the small ones are mission-focused. "There is one mission, one line of business," said Brett Bobley, CIO at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"We get to talk to our customers and interact directly with the citizen," he said. Bobley has a paltry $280,000 a year to spend on IT, but that has not stopped him from finding the most innovative ways to keep the agency humming and helping others navigate rough waters with limited funds.
"We share a lot," said Bobley, who is co-chairman of the Small Agency CIO Council and sits on the federal CIO Council as a small agency liaison with Warren.
Small agencies are often misunderstood, and the reporting burdens that all agencies face could have been enormous if they had not united to speak to OMB in one voice.
In some cases, vendors don't know what they are up against when they visit CIOs at small agencies and present solutions that could cost many times more than the agency's annual IT budget.
Even the federal procurement philosophy of saving money by buying in bulk and using government contract vehicles to get the best deal does not work for small agencies. "We do try to work with the vendors in pricing products," Bobley said.
CIOs at small agencies recently negotiated an agreement with Microsoft Corp. to renew an enterprise licensing agreement for all 87 small agencies. The agreement allows an agency to pay a fixed price each year for Microsoft software and upgrade the software whenever new versions are released. It includes reduced pricing and benefits such as free home use software licenses and free training and support.
Despite their size, small agencies have some of the same demands from OMB as their bigger colleagues. For example, they must come up with enterprise architecture plans, and they are required to comply with every law that affects the larger agencies, including the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 and the Federal Information Security Management Act.
They also justify expenditures to OMB. But because the agencies are so small, the office has given them a break on filling out Exhibit 53s and 300s, the spreadsheets required to analyze and justify budget requests.
"OMB has been working closely with the Small Agency CIO Council on reducing the requirements," Bobley said. "The way in which we do it was changed. The new procedure is that the small agencies only do a draft."
Additionally, council members worked with OMB officials to create special reporting requirements for microagencies, agencies with fewer than 100 employees. In an Aug. 10 letter, Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, stated that the office has modified its reporting requirements for the small agencies' IT investments.
"Since all agencies need to be accountable for their IT spending, in this case it was determined that a two-step reporting requirement made more sense than a reporting threshold," Johnson said.
Nevertheless, small agencies are still cash-poor. Most small-agency CIOs said advantages and disadvantages exist to their roles in a complex government system — and it's not just about money.
"As a small organization, we can often be more agile and implement change more quickly," said Alan Levine, CIO at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He has a yearly budget of $4.5 million.
"As a small organization, it is easier for a CIO to have close relations to key managers, and at the same time be more intimately familiar with the detailed workings of each business area," said Levine, who meets every week with many of the rank-and-file members who use the systems.
The need to save money is a driving force, he said. As a result, Kennedy Center officials implemented a highly specialized customer relationship management system to handle the needs of performing arts organizations in areas such as ticketing and fund-raising. Officials at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City developed the system, and now the Kennedy Center and 60 other arts organizations collaborate to support it, Levine said.
Finding creative ways to do things is only one of the challenges, said Rick Turner, a former CIO at the FTC.
"The thing that used to frustrate me while I was there is that industry didn't see us as being that viable a market," said Turner, also the former CIO at the National Security Agency. "They were not going to make a lot of money from us. You had to stomp your feet to get attention."
When he worked to make the commission's computers compliant for the Year 2000 date change, "the amount of money it took us to fix our problem was bread crumbs on the table," he said.
Size sometimes was an advantage, however, Turner said. "There are agencies that were prestigious, but their CIOs had very little authority because the money was spent elsewhere," he added.
The small-agency CIOs are always devising new ways to do business, said Hilary Schultz, CIO at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has a $7 million IT budget.
"One of the biggest advantages of being little is being little," Schultz said. "Because we are much closer to where the rubber meets the road, we can respond faster. We are closer to the senior leadership and can get decisions faster."
For example, commission officials are getting ready to deploy an automated law office project called eLaw. It is designed to support the commission's investigation, trial and appellate law work by using cutting-edge technology to manage case documents.
"We don't have the depth of staff that large agencies have, so we have to work together to get the job done," Schultz said.
But the biggest advantage, small-agency CIOs said, is that you can actually see a project through to completion. Modernizing
a system won't take 10 years. Finding millions of dollars to keep a legacy system operating is not part of the game plan, and even refreshing computers is hardly a challenge. These CIOs are not beyond retirement age when their projects reach completion.
At the Export-Import Bank, Young said, the scale of deployment is a different ballgame. "When you are in a smaller place, you can see the fruit of what you've done," she said.
Some microagencies with fewer than 100 employees each:
American Battle Monuments Commission.
U.S. Institute of Peace.
Appalachian Regional Commission.
Commission on Civil Rights.
Morris Udall Scholarship Foundation.
Office of Special Counsel.
Barry Goldwater Scholarship Foundation.
Office of Government Ethics.
Marine Mammal Commission.
National Mediation Board.
Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.
Source: Office of Personnel Management