HHS gives IT health a booster shot

Throughout his career at the Health and Human Services Department, Charles Havekost has never strayed far from the grants process—beginning with pushing paper as a lowly technical assistant to directing streamlined systems today as its CIO.

During college, he was a junior fellow at HHS’ National Institutes of Health, stirring his interest in how computers could advance medical research. But his first job at NIH was collating paper grant applications stacked in tall piles on tables because the copiers did not have collators. The paper world wasn’t for him, so he went to work for NIH’s computer center.

He has been at HHS for 26 years and held jobs in the areas of information systems, grants and technology management. He briefly left federal service in 1999 and became a director at BroadBand Office, a start-up telecommunications business.

Havekost returned to government in 2001 and led the cross-agency team for Grants.gov, the Quicksilver e-government project to unifying the federal grants process.

HHS has 60,000 employees and 13 agencies conducting a wide range of business operations, which adds to Havekost’s challenge. He is targeting IT to streamline processes and improve collaboration across HHS.

GCN staff writer Mary Mosquera interviewed Havekost at his Washington office.

GCN: What are three of Health and Human Services’ high-priority IT projects?

HAVEKOST: Security is a perennial high-priority project. We’ve pushed beyond 90 percent on certification and accreditation of our major systems. When you get to 100 percent, it means that the project that starts tomorrow has to be certified and accredited. So we’re shooting for 100 percent, with accommodation for churn in the next quarter.

Capital planning and investment control is a management and policy goal at HHS. Tracking IT investments across the department is important. And in the past cycle, the IT Investment Review Board implemented software from ProSight [Inc. of Portland, Ore.] to collect capital-planning and investment control information. That’s providing great value to us.

In some ways, collection of that information in the past was ad hoc. Now we use a playbook to point out Exhibit 300 and Ex- hibit 53 information, and that helps to make the process of making business cases more empirical.

GCN: How has this changed the way the department manages its IT projects?

HAVEKOST: In the past, each operating division had its own view of what they were asked to do by the department. The opportunity to report on IT projects wasn’t being doled out fairly. But ProSight makes the business practice and the level of data collection across the department, presented in a common framework, measurable and systematized.

It’s very useful to have the operating divisions see that. It gives us information so that we can compare and contrast projects across the department.

At a recent secretary’s budget council, we were able to prioritize a list of projects across the department and got a subset for each of those operating divisions. We were able to have a chart with the major IT projects within an operating division and compare them with each other within that division and also see how they compare departmentwide. It’s given us better yardsticks to measure the quality of project management for these projects across the department.

Earned-value management is also important within capital planning and investment control for big projects which have a lot of development dollars. It is a way to track schedule, expenditures and milestones reached to see whether a project is going where it’s supposed to go—whether it’s to stand up a system or consolidate some systems or to re-engineer a business process.

We can, without having day-to-day, hands-on contact with that project, have a way to measure whether it is reaching its goals and reaching them within schedule and budget.

GCN: How are lean budgets affecting your IT plans?

HAVEKOST: One way we deal with that is to identify places where we can take advantage of economies of scale. Some systems and IT projects have matured. How do we best use them to achieve savings and do more with the same or less funding?

The grants system is a good example of where we can take advantage of a state-of-the-art, proven big-grants system rather than going out and having other groups develop additional systems. By doing these consolidations, we can save money by having fewer hosting providers, help desks and IT staffs on call in the middle of the night, and contracts to support systems.

This is a time where prioritization really goes to the court for us, and the capital planning and investment control is something that’s going to give us a way to prioritize. We have our HHS IT strategic plan that gives us the broad-brush goals of IT in the department. And through capital planning and IT investment control, we can get things a little more granular into the projects.
I think this is where we get a demonstration of value to the department’s strategic goals to the business of America’s health. We have to work with program managers to ensure that they understand that projects are being done to produce outcomes to support this department and protect America’s health improvement.

For example, think about the reason for doing an upgrade. Why are they going from Version 4.5.3 to 4.5.4.? As we talk about projects, let’s move from the micro and take the macro focus: What is the benefit to the business of HHS?

GCN: HHS has been lead agency for Grants.gov, for which you were program manager before being named the department’s CIO. It is one of the e-government projects that have gained traction and maturity. What’s next for it?

HAVEKOST: Grants.gov has reached the goal that was set out for it, which was to have a unified system to find and apply for grants electronically. But there’s plenty left to do.

Identifying the grants management line of business was recognition of the continuing importance of developing government- wide systems for all government operations regarding grants.

Utilization numbers are increasing also. For example, as of the week ending Oct. 3, Grants.gov had received more than 1.4 million hits weekly to find grant opportunities and sent 710,000 e-mails weekly to notify applicants when new grants were posted that met their preferences.

We put out a system, proved that it works, and then the Office of Management and Budget put the policy behind it that agencies must use it.

But significant groundwork still needs to be done for agencies to accept applications electronically. That said, agencies have posted 1,400 grants packages at the site. Grants.gov is shooting for 15,000 by the summer.

A difficult thing for agencies to do is to finish up their interfaces to accept applications. A lot of agencies still accept applications on paper and have some trouble going through the process of what is it that we collect.

GCN: How will HHSNet improve access to systems?

HAVEKOST: HHSNet, the shared network backbone for the department, is really exciting because it’s a piece of infrastructure that encourages HHS agencies to work together and makes departmentwide services basically the path of least resistance.

In the past, when a network had grown up focused on an operating division, it was tricky to access a service that was at some other part of the department. The traffic that wanted to access that service had to go out on the public Internet and come back in. So HHSNet has given us a kind of connection among our operating divisions, a preferred and more trusted path for communication.

Basically HHSNet is a cloud, using a very- high-performance network service, that each of our operating divisions can connect to and then get to any other service or operating division using that without having to put in a point-to-point connection.

HHS started using components of HHSNet during the summer. HHS just brought up dual network operations centers in October to monitor and manage connectivity, capacity and security.
The enterprise e-mail is another example. A simple connection from the e-mail-hosting site to HHSNet means that all of our operating divisions will have access to it. Existing departmentwide systems, like human resources, are accessed in a more trusted way.

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