DOD sketches its diagram of the future

As vice chairman of the CIO Council for the past five years, Dave Wennergren has used his innate sense of innovation and knack for teamwork to drive digital evolution in the federal government. His work has been most visible at the Defense Department, where he started as deputy CIO and then CIO of the Navy Department. For the past four years, he was deputy CIO and deputy assistant secretary of Defense for information management and technology.

Now that DOD is taking on a major reorganization of its executive organization under Secretary Robert Gates, including the dissolution of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration, Wennergren is moving into a new office and a new role. He was recently named assistant deputy chief management officer at the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense.

In a recent interview with Federal Computer Week, Wennergren spoke with staff writer Amber Corrin and editor-at-large Wyatt Kash about his experiences at DOD, the evolution of the federal government in the Information Age and what the future might hold for IT innovations. The interview has been edited and condensed.

FCW: As you’re looking back over the past decade of your career at the Defense Department, what stands out in your mind?

Wennergren: [Oct. 8] was the 10th anniversary of the issuance of the first DOD Common Access Card. I was looking back and thinking it doesn’t seem like that long ago. But that was a really dramatic undertaking for the Defense Department, to move away from the kind of world we used to live in, where there would have been hundreds of public-key infrastructure solutions and dozens of smart cards, none of which would have worked together and all of which would have completely precluded us from getting to the place where we are today, where you can do service-oriented architecture and have a look toward the Web 2.0 future.

The fact that a decade ago we were able to get the team together and get everyone to align to a single smart card for the entire DOD — that’s one of my most memorable adventures in the last 10 years of doing CIO work at the Navy and DOD.

FCW: Is there anything you can share with us about what’s being discussed as DOD starts to implement the reorganization set out by Gates?

Wennergren: There have been a lot of things being said in the public that may cause some consternation and may not be exactly what the secretary has said. The secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense [William Lynn], and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Adm. Mike Mullen] have been clear that their goal is to have a strengthened CIO when we’re done. So we still imagine having a DOD CIO; that CIO will still work directly for the secretary of Defense; that CIO will have the right set of resources and tools to be able to do the policy, governance, oversight and compliance. It’s still our hope that [California CIO and erstwhile nominee] Teri Takai will become our next DOD CIO.

FCW: Do you feel that the CIO's effectiveness and ability to make a contribution have improved since you first joined the CIO Council?

Wennergren: It’s a little like Maslow’s Pyramid: If you’re down at the bottom, that’s where we were when we created the [Common Access Card]. Now that we have a CAC, we can have a legally binding digital signature. Without a digital signature, we wouldn’t have been able to move away from paper-based processes. So it’s really foundational stuff that if you don’t get done, you don’t get to work on the cooler stuff we have now.

I would argue that CIOs have the ability to make more of a difference more quickly today than in the past, now that the groundwork has been laid.

FCW: What do you see as major hurdles in building that pyramid?

Wennergren: We still have these cultural change issues that get in the way of CIOs being able to move at amazing speed. It usually comes down to one main cultural issue, and that’s personal control.

If you look at all the value you see in this world of service-oriented architecture and Web 2.0 and cloud computing and all the buzzwords of the day, they all speak to a world where somebody does something for you, where it’s a managed service. Someone else runs the data center or hosts the application. The issue is that we always like to own it ourselves. We don’t like to worry about relying on other people. But this future for us is all about not owning the servers anymore or not building our own systems anymore.

That’s a fundamental change, and it’s a critical issue that’s facing federal agencies and large commercial organizations — moving from an organization of low trust to an organization of high trust.

FCW: What are some of the other highlights or accomplishments you’ve seen on the CIO Council or at DOD that don't get as much credit as they should?

Wennergren: We were able to realize that you do not always have to replace a legacy system with a new system, that you could actually look at what the world offers us today and create a net-centric data strategy and a net-centric services strategy that said that if you could decouple the data from your applications, you could do things at network speed.

There’s all this work that has been done with communities of interest. That’s come into play in examples like blue force tracking and maritime domain awareness and finding improvised explosive devices.

Now, you can go across the enterprise and make a data service available. You can say, "I want to know more about commercial vessels coming into harbors" and very quickly overlay that over Google Earth. You can go to any DOD computer, stick your Common Access Card in and call up the maritime domain awareness data services and view any commercial harbor in the world, every commercial vessel coming in, and drill the cargos and crews of those vessels — from any computer.

And that’s all about accessing this information that in the past was walled away in legacy systems but is now exposed, and it’s visible, accessible, understandable and trusted.

FCW: As you’re transitioning to the management side at DOD, do you have a sense of what kinds of things you’ll be tackling in your new role?

Wennergren: If you look at the recent statutes requiring the stand-up of a deputy chief management officer for DOD, which moved the work of process change and process re-engineering to the DCMO, you see this added emphasis on optimizing end-to-end processes horizontally across the organization. Over time, we’ve built up really important work vertically, but most of the processes of the organization — say, procure-to-pay or hire-to-retire — these are end-to-end processes that cross functional domains like personnel management, financial management and contracting.

So I’ll be part of a team that comes up with a strategic management plan for the organization, identifying performance measures that determine the progress of plans, determining better end-to-end processes that optimize for faster insertion of technology, reforming IT acquisition.

The work that we’re going to be doing in the year ahead is going to help us get capabilities developed and deployed to the warfighter much more rapidly than today.

FCW: Anything that you wish you had more time to work on as a CIO?

Wennergren: If you look at the change that’s happened — a decade ago, we lived on a bunch of local-area networks with local applications and everything was just fragmented, so we were building things over and over again. We created barriers to information sharing because everything was done in these local enclaves. We started to realize that wasn’t the right way to go. Then we spun to the one-big-system answer, but that’s not the right answer anymore either.

Today, the way technology is changing, we have an opportunity to have the best of both worlds. Now there’s this combination of consolidation where it makes sense and creates consistency and purpose across the organization. But there’s also the Web 2.0/service-oriented world that allows local innovation and speed. We have to stay with that. That’s going to replace the world of big IT systems.

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