CIO Perspective

IT infrastructure: The 4 big obstacles and 6 ways to fix them

org chart in 3D

In a previous column, I introduced the topic of the importance of moving to a modern, standardized and consolidated IT infrastructure, at least at an agency-by-agency level. Such infrastructure rationalization is critical to enabling IT to be most effective in helping government mission or business customers.

In that column, I presented four structural obstacles that have greatly inhibited the federal government in making significant progress on IT infrastructure rationalization: budget, program, procurement and political obstacles.

It's not that individuals actively work against what is considered IT best practice, but "the system" as it is composed today makes it difficult to drive effective IT infrastructure rationalization. Let's discuss each of those obstacles in turn, with recommendations for addressing each one. These recommendations are not for the faint of heart, but they are critical if we hope to drive significant positive progress rather than just work around the fringes.

Regarding budget, the primary issue is that most IT spending lives not in a budget overseen by a CIO but rather is scattered in numerous agency budgets, as dictated by how appropriations are structured for that agency. Pulling funds from numerous appropriations, although doable through transfers or working capital funds, is cumbersome at best and puts the CIO and IT organization at a significant disadvantage by forcing the CIO to cajole users to cooperate. I recommend the following actions be taken to address this budget obstacle:

1. The agency CIO should be given complete control over all IT infrastructure, and to the degree possible, the Office of Management and Budget should apportion the amount for IT infrastructure from each appropriation for all of those funds to be managed by the agency CIO. Agency chief financial officers must be partners with the CIOs to make this possible.

2. In parallel, OMB should work with agencies and appropriations committees on Capitol Hill to realign IT infrastructure spending across an agency so that those funds are moved under the agency CIO. The infrastructure for any new IT program would be provided by the agency CIO's organization, with funds allocated by the program to the agency CIO through the budget process.

Regarding program obstacles, the biggest issue is that in the past, major IT programs have typically handled the procurement of their own IT infrastructure, which works against the consolidation model. Yet programs need to deliver, and in many agencies, the CIO organization has not been in a position to provide enterprise IT infrastructure services. CIOs must step up to this responsibility. My recommendation is:

3. Agency CIOs should be given the responsibility and resources to assume accountability for existing agency IT infrastructure, and they should leverage the PortfolioStat process to develop a three- to five-year plan for modernizing and standardizing President's Management Council Regarding procurement ideas, forward-looking agencies are grappling with the best way to move into modern business models for procuring IT infrastructure, most notably cloud-based services. I give OMB (through the Office of E-government and IT and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy) and the General Services Administration credit for attempting to address new business models, and I believe more could be done, specifically:

4. OMB should provide leadership in working with agencies to develop model procurement packages (to include statements of objectives, contract clauses, service-level agreement language, etc.) that can be leveraged by procurement organizations at the agency level. The model packages would draw on expertise and experience from agencies that are already deploying new models, along with leading private-sector organizations. Implementation and use of those model procurement packages would be monitored through the PortfolioStat process.

5. GSA should be tasked with developing a set of IT infrastructure services, which goes well beyond just providing contract vehicles. Many smaller agencies are not in a good position to develop and operate their own IT infrastructure. GSA could assemble a set of services available to small and even large agencies that could not only let them shed much responsibility for day-to-day operations, but allow them to take advantage of the collective buying power of multiple agencies, similar to what the Defense Information Systems Agency provides in the Defense Department.

It's not that individuals actively work against what is considered IT best practice, but "the system" as it is composed today makes it difficult to drive effective IT infrastructure rationalization.

Finally, and most important, is overcoming the political obstacles. Based on my own observations while sitting in a CIO chair twice, it is critical that the above actions be supported by the White House and other decision-makers above the federal CIO level. My recommendation is:

6. Leaders should make modernizing and standardizing IT infrastructure at each agency an imperative in order to achieve a more effective and efficient government. Secretaries and deputy secretaries should be engaged in the effort, and measures of success should be tracked by the President's Management Council.

These six actions, if properly executed, can transform government IT over a three- to five-year period. Actions 1 through 5 are tactical management actions, while 6 is about leadership. Many of us have seen government try to implement variants of 1 through 5, but without 6, those efforts have been kept to the fringes. Although there are notable successes, overall we have made marginal progress.

Next month, I will address the thorny issue of IT investment management: How does an agency maximize the use of funds for IT to best support the mission and business of that agency?

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Reader comments

Fri, Jan 3, 2014

The federal IT infrastructure will not improve until the following simple steps are implemented: 1) Reducing the number of IT workers by utilizing cloud technologies and virtualization. 2) Government should focus on the mission at hand and not utilize IT experts for every faucet of technology, let contractors manage the IT infrastructure and you will do more with less. 3) I’m yet to locate a federal agency IT division that is truly interested in real IT consolidation since each worker is interested is self-preservation. 4) An independent council should be appointed to review assets and future plans regarding IT consolidation. While I acknowledge that a reduced number of IT federal employees are required, however they should be empowered to drive initiatives and guide contractors. After all, commercial contractors can be terminated for convenience while government employees are hired for life regardless of productivity.

Thu, Dec 19, 2013 Rick Heibel Pentagon

I work for the DoD and it has always been curious to me that the IT infrastructure has considerably less spent on it than the majority of major weapons systems, yet it is the most powerful and capable weapon the soldier could have. I say 'could have' because the amounts spent and the fact that the CIOs rarely get to perfrom their functions without the pitfalls you have mentioned in your articles; in fact the average IT tools provided are significantly less powerful than many people have purchased on their own. I personally struggle to deal with the fact that my work assets are 4-6 years older than those I have available at home; based upon Moore's Law, I am losing roughly about 20% capability due to the loss in speed alone. Complicate that by the outdated RAM and video capability and the capability is further deteriated.

Fri, Dec 6, 2013

One more thing, having OMB leading the effort is a recipe for disaster. They are the true govt bureaucrats. They will gum up the effort and low level OMB personnel will get to decide how this should work with absolutely NO understanding of IT. They do it in NASA related biz, why should IT be any different? Put OMB in charge? VERy, very, bad idea.

Fri, Dec 6, 2013

@ "IT needs to be broken into two components: infrastructure treated like plumbing and focused on SLAs at a low level; and Mission Program Support farmed out to the programs as a proven value they're willing to pay for." Amen. If the CIO does not add value to a program IT, step out of the way. As a federal IT manager, the comments associated with the quote above, hit the nail on the head. Outstanding!!

Thu, Dec 5, 2013 OccupyIT

"puts the CIO and IT organization at a significant disadvantage by forcing the CIO to cajole users to cooperate" Yeah, its awkward having to listen and deliver value to customers to show relevance and value. If it weren't for the d*mned users IT would be a great career... "the Office of Management and Budget should apportion the amount for IT infrastructure from each appropriation for all of those funds to be managed by the agency CIO" If the old Marketplace of Ideas isn't working out taxing people without representation is always a good second choice, especially for kings and despots. Some of this argument does beg the question, why should OMB delegate to Agency CIOs. If infrastructure is infrastructure and program outcomes aren't the driver then why not send funds to the Federal CIO and have you all work for him? Agencies becoming like the States and introduce more political baggage than value. If you're going to think big, think big. "The infrastructure for any new IT program" Herein lies the problem with most CIOs. There are no IT programs. There are mission programs and they all use IT. Grabbing money with a Troll Booth is an age old strategy but it misses the point. IT needs to be broken into two components: infrastructure treated like plumbing and focused on SLAs at a low level; and Mission Program Support farmed out to the programs as a proven value they're willing to pay for. The first doesn't require CIOs at any table that the building manager isn't at and should be driven by capability requirements of the mission for reliable infrastructure. The second is a really important job that largely isn't being done right now but is used as a smoke screen to prop up CIOs on the cocktail party circuit. If a CIO shop is not capable of delivering valuable consulting to mission programs then it should stay out of the way and let programs procure the IT talent necessary. Wishing you were good and capable of advancing mission is not the same as actually being good and capable. CIO should not become the rail barons of IT. Deliver excellence to mission managers or step aside. This comment is made in isolation. Sadly, the fact that IT folks are sometimes the only ones looking at the big picture of requirements and delivery is what makes totally shunting aside the dream of an Agency IT Consulting Service impossible. Since the mass centralization of IT talent began a decade or more ago the programs are starved for trained and capable managers. Its a food fight largely with IT folks trying to impose rationality on arbitrary managers and politicals trying to do everything in Drupal because the Whitehouse is. That said, let's not apply medicine to the wrong body part. CIOs should start sending talent on TDYs into the programs not try to consolidate control within the unresponsive walls of most current CIO shops. Keep up the dialogue, Richard, this is much more useful and engaging than your speeches. I mean that in a good way. :)

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