CIOs turns to portfolio management to get IT efforts under control

New CIOs at Homeland Security, SSA, VA aim for teamwork across traditional boundaries

Chief information officers from three federal organizations are elevating the role of portfolio management across their agencies to foster teamwork and better coordination of information technology investments.

CIOs from the Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments and the Social Security Administration shared their vision and challenges at the AFFIRM 2010 Annual Member Appreciation Program held on the evening of April 20 at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C.

The program, entitled “Meet the New CIOs,” included a panel discussion with SSA CIO Frank Baitman, VA CIO Roger Baker, and Richard Spires, chairman of the DHS CIO Council and Enterprise Architecture Board.


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The panel was moderated by David Wennergren, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Information Management, Integration and Technology and DOD deputy CIO.

Kicking off the discussion, Spires said he is trying to foster teamwork across the various DHS agencies through true governance with a focus on portfolio management.

“I’m really pushing to try to get this organization to start and look at things from a portfolio perspective that cross-cuts our organizational boundaries” – whether that is the screening of people entering the country, immigration or domain awareness, Spires said. Spires has been on the job with DHS for eight months. He served in a number of positions at the IRS from 2004 to 2008, including a stint as CIO.

IT initiatives within the department are still not well-coordinated across agencies, he said. There are some standards in place, but there isn’t an established forum that can provide best practices to people in the various agencies who are building systems with commercial products, he said. Why? Because people are so bound to their specific organizations, he said.

"I figure, over the next year, if I can do nothing else but get that to work, I think that will be a huge improvement for DHS,” he said of establishing a portfolio approach.

As CIO, he is working with DHS policy and procurement organizations to develop a set of functions that cut across agencies – for example, an enterprise business services that includes back-office capabilities such as human resources and finance systems. Another example could be supporting the Screening Coordination Office – which interacts with many other agencies such as Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration – from an enterprise architecture perspective to actually build services.

Baitman, who has been in his position for seven months, said Social Security is restructuring its investment process to get a better handle on the $1.3 billion spent annually on IT.

“We are elevating the role of portfolio executives” to reflect the fact that they have a lot of authority and as a result will be held accountable.

SSA officials are evaluating what the organization should look like in 15 years – what services should it deliver and what would be the requirements of the architecture supporting those services.

“We have a strategy but it isn’t visionary,” Baitman said. As a result, SSA has established an innovation group to come up with new technology projects, he said

For VA, it has been “the best of times for IT and the worst of times for IT,” said Baker, who has been on the job for 11 months. Prior to stints in the private sector, Baker was CIO at the Commerce Department.

VA has been 30 years ahead of the world in health IT, he said, but its benefits process is completely paper-bound and IT systems really don’t help much.

“It takes 165 days on average and up to three to four years for a veteran to start to get paid compensation for injuries suffered” during war-time service, he said.

He noted that VA still has a mainframe system built in the 1970s that pays about $7 billion a year in benefits. The definition of legacy software for Baker is “that’s the stuff you still know works,” he said.

The focus at VA is on getting something done quickly to improve IT operations. The goal is to “put something in place that can’t be undone if we move on to bigger and better things,” he said.

Commenting on portfolio management, Bakers said that “occasionally you’ve got to shut things down.”

“Not every investment I made in my life has been good. Same from a government perspective,” he said.

“I find it interesting that we still continue to use the term portfolio management when we don’t do it,” Baker said. When he took over the CIO helm at VA, the agency had 282 projects – and not all were good. He’s cut that down to 92.

“What we are doing now are good investments,” he said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader comments

Thu, Apr 22, 2010 SWF St. Louis, MO

The problem with tight portfolio management is that the people at the top doing the managing are out of touch with the needs of the users who must perform the detailed business functions each day. Rather than providing systems that automate processes and improve productivity, those at the top want a small number of generic systems that often don't fit the missions of the agency. So there is a constant conflict between those who want nicely organized powerpoint architecture slides and those wanting systems that improve their productivity by tightly meeting business requirements. Having more power to mandate generic systems will not be the answer. But lots of money will be spent trying. And there will continue to be the large project failures that have been so common in the public sector. Successful systems are not implemented at a high level. They are implemented at a detailed level. System implementation evaluation decisions should be made in the trenches where the business requirements are clearly understood.

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