How HUD's new CIO is remaking the agency
HUD has not had a good reputation in IT management, but CIO Jerry Williams' team might be turning the corner
It is no secret in the federal sector that the Housing and Urban Development Department has historically been slow, disorganized and overbudget with its IT programs. But a year-and-a-half after he took the reins, CIO Jerry Williams might be making a difference.
The Government Accountability Office has been on HUD's back multiple times in the past several years, most recently in November 2010. “IT: HUD Needs to Strengthen Its Capacity to Manage and Modernize Its Environment,” a July 2009 GAO report was titled. The most recent report was “IT: HUD Needs to Better Define Commitments and Disclose Risks for Modernization Projects in Future Expenditure Plans.”
True, such scrutiny isn't unusual. Every major agency’s IT department gets a scolding — or worse — from Congress' watchdog from year to year. In GAO's eyes, HUD is slow, disorganized, and has trouble reporting and managing it acquisitions and procurements.
“HUD has had — and it is part of the public record — a long history of not effectively managing IT projects,” Williams said. “By that I mean very specifically projects tend to run over schedule, over cost and at the end of the day didn't deliver the desired functionality.”
GAO's November report was part of a series about HUD IT that the HUD Appropriations Act of 2008 required. GAO auditors examined incremental IT expenditures from March 2010 to November 2010. According to the report, HUD was providing insufficient reporting of life cycle costs, expected mission benefits, estimated costs and key milestones for all IT modernization projects. GAO also said HUD had not yet institutionalized key management controls or capabilities, including enterprise architecture development and use and the management of system life cycles, IT investments and the IT workforce.
But Williams and his relatively new team are confident they can overcome that legacy and GAO’s concerns, and they have been making some changes, beginning with the agency's governance and architecture.
“It is really about process and about governance, making sure that you have skilled individuals who are actually leading these projects both on the part of the [Office of the CIO] and as part of the agencies and programs within HUD,” Williams said. "Those are the types of things that Chris [Niedermayer] and his team have done. It is also about governance. It is about creating these integrated project teams…where both communities get together [and] talk about the projects.”
Williams and Niedermayer, deputy CIO for business and IT modernization, have created new standards, definitions and processes for the teams to work through. The IT development, acquisition and implementation process is more rigorous than it used to be, which has created a change within the agency that Williams’ team is still adjusting to.
“It is a struggle,” Niedermayer said. “When you have individuals and groups of individuals who are not accustomed to the rigor of a standard process or a standard methodology, it becomes difficult for them to understand what the value is in it and how will it help me be a success in the end.”
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The primary task for Williams and Niedermayer has been to change the architecture of the IT department and, by extension, the culture of IT implementation at the agency.
“Some focus that Jerry has brought here is when you finish the definition phase, let's clearly make a decision,” Niedermayer said. “Buy — buy a service, buy
a product — [or] build it, which is our last choice. Or buy software as a service, which is where...there is no real development involved.”
Cut the fat, tighten the screws. Faster, more efficient. Fitter, happier, more productive. Pick your cliché — they all apply to the job that Williams has had in front of him since taking over the CIO office in July 2009. His team has been defining projects and procurements in light of its vision for the new architecture at HUD, a process that was finished in October 2010. Now it is time to figure out which projects and systems to keep and how to go about modernizing old processes and implementing new ones.
“I can tell you that internally we have a lot of legacy systems,” Niedermayer said. “And you can't go from that type of an environment to a [commercial off-the-shelf] product without some planning and some transition.”
Part of that transition is defining a retirement process for systems that are no longer useful.
“Ultimately, the performance that we see rendered by the initiatives we have identified will make the determination as to what gets eliminated,” Williams said. “So…one key component [of that vision and target architecture] is a retirement strategy.… We are very serious about saying, 'If you don't have the capability, you don't have the right people, you miss your milestones, whatever the case may be, we will stop your project.'”
In a blog entry posted on HUD.gov and CIO.gov, Williams shared his vision for the new year while recapping HUD's successes in 2010. For instance, he described the progress of the agency's open-government initiatives, which have been well received.
However, open government is not just about making blog posts and other statements that say, “Look how transparent we are!” It is about figuring out how to package data from interagency sources and make it accessible to the public. Williams said those efforts are a work in progress as he and his team rebuild the architecture of the entire agency.
“Architecture should be driven by data, right?” Williams said. “What we are trying to do is synchronize the data such that it becomes corporate data that can be used across the department. So we want to make data more ubiquitous within HUD. We want to move data up from the silos and move it from the corporate layer so that it can be readily shared across any of those domains. We are going to collect it once and use it many times across all of HUD.”
Any data discussion at the federal level is not complete without taking Federal Information Security Management Act standards into account, particularly the reporting mechanism CyberScope. HUD officials said security is a priority, but the agency is still a bit behind on CyberScope’s directive to deliver data in real time. As with much in the HUD IT transition, it is a work in progress.
“We have actually moved our security group out of our policy shop and into our operations with the hope of making it…more operational than it has been before,” Williams said. “I don't totally think that we have capitalized on the real-time reporting aspect of it.… We are not perfect, and I don't want to say that, to be clear. But it is an area where we are growing. We know where we want to be, we know where the target is. It is to be more proactive. So you take those baby steps to get there.”
HUD’s IT budget is about $300 million. Neither the budget nor the number of employees in the IT department has changed much in the past 10 years. Yet there are new people roaming the long hallways at agency headquarters in southwest D.C., and they are confident that nothing stands in the way of achieving a successful transition from one of the slower-moving IT departments in the federal government to an agile, fast-moving agency that can be a model for some of the larger fish in the pond.
“We are small potatoes compared to those guys,” Williams said. “But having been at some of those other organizations before, one of the reasons that I am here is that I believe that HUD is small enough and agile enough to achieve the types of reforms that we have talked about and perhaps provide the example for the larger agencies.”
Williams has established a sense of empowerment among his employees at HUD headquarters, at least if Niedermayer's attitude is any indication. Williams' employees inherited a jumbled mess from their predecessors at the HUD CIO's office. Their job has been to clear away that jumble, and now they have a clean foundation to build on.
“It is true: When you are in an environment where you feel empowered to be your best, then you can go a lot further. And that is what attracted everyone here,” Niedermayer said. “It is hard to find — particularly in a CIO job — a place where people feel really empowered. I believe that our success is totally in our hands. Nobody is really in our way. It is up to us to make it happen. We have the tools. I think we have the knowledge and experience to do it. It is up to us. You don't find too many places where that is the case.”