Keys to IT innovation are in the approach

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The government spends a lot more money maintaining its legacy systems than it does on new technologies, and that’s a big problem for innovation.

Of the $82 billion federal IT budget, some 70 percent goes toward keeping things like old data centers chock-full of server racks that house internal agency email systems and siloed sets of data that might never see the light of day – or serve a more useful purpose.

Keith Trippie, executive director of the Homeland Security Department’s Enterprise System Development Office, summed up the government’s quandary  at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 17.

“The way we buy IT is a lot like the way we used to buy tanks and aircraft carriers,” Trippie said.

Technology’s evolution has outpaced the acquisition strategies and deployment methods used by the government, providing fundamental roadblocks to innovative technologies like cloud computing, big data and mobile. Yet those roadblocks aren’t impassable, and several panelists at the Dec. 17 event offered insights for agencies struggling to keep the lights on while also launching innovation-driven pilot projects.

Chief among the barriers to innovation is the culture that has grown up around government IT.

“From the magic wand perspective, if I could change one thing, it would clearly be the culture,” said Joe Klimavicz, CIO at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Klimavicz has overseen several innovation-fueled improvements at NOAA. The agency, which manages 16 orbital weather satellites, 1,400 real-time weather stations and collects data on everything from the ocean floor to the sun’s surface, has been one of the leading cloud adopters in government. In recent years, it eliminated 19 separate email systems in favor the Gmail-powered cloud and reduced 39 tier-one help desks to one cloud-based system. The agency has a large mobile workforce, so it transitioned to cloud-based mobile device management, too.

What those shifts did was take huge amounts of information out of NOAA-owned systems and into data centers managed by cloud service providers under specified security controls. It’s not a move many CIOs or IT organizations in government are willing to make because they don’t want to lose ownership.

The culture is, “I have to own something, touch something, go down the hall and fix something,” Klimavicz said. “I would do away with that mindset if I had a magic wand. Philosophically, CIOs can’t be emotionally attached to any particular IT solution. You’ve got to be able to take a step back as rapidly as things are changing and think about what the best solution is for my problem today.”

Mark Schwartz, CIO for  Citizenship and Immigration Services, said another roadblock to innovation is the government’s reputation for stagnation and the lackluster pace of IT implementation.

“Federal employees have to have the attitude to feel on top of their field,” Schwartz said. “We talk amongst ourselves and pass the same ideas back and forth all the time.”

Government contractors respond to government need. There isn’t a lot of room for changes to the system, and skillsets in those workforces are limited to niche projects.

“The government wants X, Y and Z, contractors provide that, but when someone comes in to innovate and those skills aren’t necessarily there because they’re used to serving what the government needs,” Schwartz said. “We’re always a little behind accessing skillsets behind that innovation.”

Klimavicz pointed to increased public-private  partnerships as a means to enhance innovation. Agencies often do not have “the best ability to anticipate or understand what the public needs.”

While NOAA can collect and study data with the best of them, Klimavicz said the agency can’t possibly know how best to package all that information to meet the needs of the private sector and the public at large.

 “We need to work with industry a lot in terms of how to take federal government information and how to use it in innovative ways. I think if we can free up information, we can let industry innovate in unimaginable ways,” Klimavicz said.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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Reader comments

Wed, Dec 18, 2013 OccupyIT

“The government wants X, Y and Z, contractors provide that, but when someone comes in to innovate and those skills aren’t necessarily there because they’re used to serving what the government needs,” Schwartz said. “We’re always a little behind accessing skillsets behind that innovation.” - I think he means "the're forced by our procurement mentaility to only deliver what the government insists they want to buy, and nothing else, at the lowest possible price with the greatest possible disatisfaction level we can stand short of termination" and then we are surprised when our team looks like those just barely able to deliver SLAs each day. Until you include CLINs that fund and manage resources for innovation or allow your contractors to repurpose cost avoidance as process reinvestment you can't really blame contractors for our lack of insight in buying what we really need - rather than buying the least we can and then complaining when it is not more. Grow up a bit and do the real analysis it takes to create an innovative culture - then come back and tell us who is not delivering.

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