Feds go tech
- By Judi Hasson
- Jan 11, 2004
For feds, infrastructure is so 1990s. More than half of the federal information technology managers surveyed by Federal Computer Week last month said they had access to the most up-to-date technology to do their jobs.
What they really need now to do their jobs more effectively are steady budgets, more management and program training, and better technology solutions for IT programs.
FCW received 286 responses to an e-mail survey to subscribers who hold federal IT jobs. It was conducted during the first two weeks of December 2003 and asked a series of questions about what they need to do their jobs better.
Although money and training topped the federal IT workers' wish list, many said they also wanted fewer congressional mandates and better information in such areas as best practices. Most said they were satisfied with the level of security at their workplace, but they said there could always be more — both cyber and physical.
The survey mirrored many of the problems that experts have been finding.
The infrastructure upgrade, however, is a clear turnaround from past years, when government lagged behind the private sector in modernizing front- and back-office networks.
According to the survey, most managers — more than 80 percent — said they've had their computer systems updated in the past two years, while more than half use an Intel Corp. Pentium 4 machine.
"We're starting to get the tools we need to do our jobs," said Stephen Wehrly, chief of standards and technology at the Army's Publishing Directorate in Alexandria, Va. "It's starting to come in. The problem is the Web public wanted more yesterday."
The survey found there are still gaps in the tools federal IT managers say would help them do their jobs, including better help-desk support, storage and intrusion prevention, not to mention the frustration of finding enough money to keep their operations humming.
"The IT arena moves fairly quickly in terms of technology and capabilities," said Jim Kindig, a senior IT specialist at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "The government is excellent in providing the tools as far as hardware and software. The difficult thing in government is trying to work the procurement process."
Money is a big issue for many federal IT workers who live in a world of budget uncertainty. With a yearly budget cycle mandated by Congress, they must begin fighting for more money for the following year as soon as they receive their yearly allotment, he said.
"We have no control over a lot of things," said Mark Styron, a civilian computer specialist at Fort Bragg, N.C., who works at the Community and Business Center and must drive across the base for network access when he needs it.
The budget is tight, according to Gloria Christensen of Jacksonville, Fla., an information management specialist with the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion. "We might be looking at not seeing some of the things we'd like for the next fiscal year," she said. "With budget cuts, we may not get as many upgrades. I would say that nothing is ever perfect."
Although Robert Jones, network operations chief for the 3rd Radio Battalion for Marine Forces Pacific, may seem to have the perfect assignment in Hawaii, he said, "beach and palm trees do not equal happy users."
"We have IT out there, but once we have it, we need to support it fully instead of piecemeal support for a project," Jones said. "If we can get the time to train, we shouldn't have to wait three or four weeks on the funding issue. [The Defense Department] should pick up the cost."
"The federal government hasn't yet fully realized that much of its work is knowledge work, and knowledge and skills are crucial and won't happen as well if you don't put money into training people," said Steve Kelman, professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
When government officials think training, he said, they tend to think about "very narrow technical skills and not pay attention to developing management and leadership skills that are also very important to knowledge work."
Respondents also said they wanted more access to training programs and more help from managers. Some said the government is looking the wrong way in creating the workplace of the 21st century. Agencies are spending money on technology without thinking through what they really need — which is better management, according to Jesse Brogan, an industrial engineer at Fort Meade, Md.
"We're trying to manage problems with technology, and it's failing," said Brogan, author of a new book, "Harnessing the Technology Demon." "What is it our senior managers are supposed to accomplish using technology? We find there is nothing."
Training is a necessary part of any government equation, according to Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, an IT industry trade group.
He and others credit the drive to modernize computer systems before the threatened Year 2000 meltdown as one of the reasons there are new computer systems throughout government. The other is the dramatic drop in prices, which has allowed agencies to replace thousands of desktop PCs before they became outdated.
But Miller said the government is still behind in moving to wireless, the next big leap for IT. "More and more of the world is moving to a wireless world and in government, we're still talking about a tethered world," he said. "The government is eager to get into wireless, but there are legitimate concerns about security and jumping on the wrong horse because technology is still in flux."
Dendy Young, president and chief executive officer of GTSI Corp., a large supplier of IT products and solutions to government, said there is increasing demand for wireless and handheld systems, security, and more storage.
"Government has upgraded," Young said. "And part of the reason for that is that the price of desktops and laptops has come down so much more. We live in an environment of product price deflation — approximately 20 percent. And just to stay even, we have to sell 20 percent more stuff."
Federal IT workers are looking for simple solutions to do their jobs. Even with better equipment, they still say they want more help-desk support, intrusion prevention and laptops.
But prior to buying new technology, agency officials must have a plan and look at the big picture before tapping into the wide array of technology available, according to Donna Morea, executive vice president and general manager of American Management Services Inc.'s public sector.
"While technology is critical, people and their understanding of how to change relevant business processes and decision-
making ultimately will determine the success of major IT-based initiatives," she said.
"I'm not too surprised about the percent of upgrades," said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA International Inc., a technology solutions company. "Lots, if not most, of the replaced stock of PCs were probably bought as part of the Year 2000 preparations and are aging out. The question I would ask is, 'How is all this additional computing power being used?' "
There are other questions about efficiencies, too.
Until recently, the development process was ad hoc at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "If we ever had to switch contractors, we'd be in trouble because we wouldn't be able to tell folks how to fix the system or modify it," said Bruce Olson, who works in a group that designs software for the National Emergency Management Information System.
"We know we can save a lot of money and get help to people quicker," Olson said. "We do believe we could make this a lot more efficient, and that would serve people a lot better."
Nevertheless, FCW's survey findings were encouraging for those inside and outside government. "It's going to be a good '04," said Al Ressler, director of the Center for Human Resources at the National Academy of Public Administration, which is dedicated to improving government. "There is a lot of momentum behind the programs — succession planning, leadership development, awareness of employee needs, pay for performance. They are starting to call attention to the needs of the workforce."
Dennis Gehley, a senior analyst at the General Accounting Office who has worked for the federal government since 1968, agreed. He gave the government two thumbs up for its improvements.
"When I show up for work at 7:15 a.m., the system is ready to go," Gehley said. "It rarely is down. I get all the computer training I want to get. I am pretty much able to use what they train me for."
BY THE NUMBERS: PC power to burn
There was a time when federal employees could expect their office computer technology to be several generations behind what they had at home. That is no longer the case, according to a recent survey by Federal Computer Week.
More than 51 percent of feds have a desktop computer powered by an Intel Corp. Pentium 4 processor, and another 29.8 percent have Pentium IIIs. About 6 percent of respondents have an earlier Pentium version, while 10.6 percent use a laptop computer. Only 1.8 percent of readers surveyed use an Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh-based system.
Agencies clearly are not dragging their feet on PC upgrades: 55.3 percent of PCs were updated in the past year, with another 25 percent upgraded in 2002. Only about 3 percent of respondents have not been upgraded in the past few years.
A management wish list
Federal Computer Week asked federal employees to rank 12 possible management priorities for 2004. It probably comes as no surprise that bigger budgets topped the list by a significant margin. But money clearly is not the only concern.
Here's the full rundown, sorted by the average ranking:
* Bigger budgets.
* Better technology solutions.
* Management training.
* Better understanding/skills in business processes.
* Fewer congressional mandates.
* More information on best practices.
* Longer project deadlines.
* A government information technology solutions database.
* Better communications governmentwide.
* Better relations with contractors.
* Fewer Office of Management and Budget mandates.
* Better relations with immediate supervisors.