IT Policy

A fundamental shift -- and a long-term proposition

Paul Brubaker - photo source: Cisco

DOD's Paul Brubaker said agencies must think carefully about how new technologies affect daily operations.

Policies aimed at making IT operations more efficient and effective across government are beginning to have real effect, but federal managers say some hard reckoning is still to come as new processes and more business-oriented thinking take hold.

"The cloud and the [federal] 15-point data plan have been used as excuses not to ask fundamental questions" about new technological capabilities, said Paul Brubaker, director of planning and performance management at the Defense Department. Agency CIOs must think carefully about how they implement those new IT capabilities and how they affect everyday operations, IT workers and, ultimately, their agencies' bottom line, he added.

Panelists at an Association for Federal Information Resources Management event on Nov. 21 agreed that they were in the middle of a fundamental shift in their agencies' business models. Agencies are becoming more service-oriented, business-focused organizations that benefit from new technology approaches such as cloud-based services, mobile computing and strong identity management.

Brubaker was joined by Keith Trippie, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security; Timothy McCrosson, senior policy analyst for e-government at the Office of Management and Budget; and Sanjay Sardar, CIO at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They agreed that new technologies have forced a fundamental shift in how federal agencies handle IT, but they disagreed on the extent of that shift.

Brubaker said new technology brings changed perceptions about personnel needs and budgeting that might go unnoticed at first but bear consideration.

"What will happen to IT people who have to find new things to do?" Brubaker said in an interview with FCW. "Will they allow a new [agency] business plan that does away with their jobs? Technology is not [only] about technology."

Along with tech-focused policies such as cloud initiatives and the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), he said, federal agencies need to develop a human capital strategy for dealing with the tech changes.

McCrosson likened the shift in federal IT capabilities and operations to President Barack Obama's rumored wardrobe re-evaluation, in which the president winnowed down his suits to a few colors so as not to waste time on the relatively trivial decision of what to wear. That upfront decision on a small matter "saved more time for big decisions," McCrosson said.

Federal IT managers should be implementing a similar process. Managers should not have to consider what server to buy or which email system to use but should instead be focusing on what service they need to fulfill their agencies' overarching mission. "You want to take the localized decision out of the paradigm," he said.

McCrosson said he agreed with Brubaker that there is a fundamental redirection in federal IT operations and culture, and he pointed to "some bright spots," such as the Department of Veterans Affairs' use of big-data analysis to predict which patients would need additional care. The Agriculture Department is using similar analytics for food inspections, he added.

The tightening federal budget is also affecting how agencies implement policy, Sardar said. "FedRAMP allows us to cut and re-invent" without the usual hassles of having to upgrade aging systems, he said. "It allows us a longer view of our mission."

DHS is "heading to a different IT process," Trippie said, with the cloud and FedRAMP. The department had been struggling with how to handle IT operations across such a large and disparate organization. "There had been bodies strewn on the highway," he said. But in the past four years or so, DHS has embraced cloud capabilities and services.

Trippie said IT policies initially flattened individual agency data silos and allowed them to "consumerize" data that once had been trapped. Ultimately, he said, it might take a generation to work through the new IT environment that recent policy changes have wrought.

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