Budget squeeze: One CIO's story of survival

EPA's Malcolm Jackson on how to do 3 things with the money that used to pay for 2

Malcolm Jackson, just 10 months into his job as CIO of the Environmental Protection Agency, is moving at full speed. He's restructuring the agency’s systems, which includes realigning IT with EPA’s mission, strengthening IT management practices and putting the agency on a cloud computing footing. Meanwhile, as EPA’s assistant administrator of the Office of Environmental Information and CIO, Jackson is responsible for IT operations and security in addition to information quality, collection and access.

It’s a job of juggling resources and risk for which Jackson seems well prepared. Before being confirmed as CIO by the Senate in June 2010, he was senior IT business unit director of CIGNA Group Insurance. In today’s uncertain financial climate, he said, government CIOs must ensure that IT assets and the agency’s goals are in sync.

“EPA no longer has the financial ability to allow program [managers] to tailor their individual systems to suit their needs without consideration of what is going on across the agency,” Jackson said April 6 in an address to the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council.

That’s a reality CIOs will face for the foreseeable future. “Going forward, I need to be able to do three things with the same dollars that we used to do two things with,” he said.

Jackson offered five priorities for driving IT management, governance, standardization and transparency across the agency. They include:

  • Run the agency like a business.
  • Focus on delivering high-quality services to internal users.
  • Strengthen bonds with business partners in industry and state, local and tribal governments.
  • Develop and attract talented people.
  • Establish a strategic direction for IT.

“We are spending a lot of time establishing a strategic direction for IT within the agency,” Jackson said, noting that the federal government has spent $600 billion on IT during the past decade but has not achieved the productivity gains realized by industry.

Rigorous review

Shortly after Jackson took over the Office of Environmental Information, he saw the need for a stronger IT investment review that went beyond the technology staff. “I want to institute a regular rigorous review of all our IT systems,” he said, adding that this approach works in the private sector.

Jackson partnered with EPA’s chief financial officer to conduct a critical review of the agency's major IT investments. He personally conducted the reviews with internal users, sponsors and investors in IT projects in conjunction with the CFO’s office.

Jackson’s team focused on IT investments greater than $3 million as part of the Office of Management and Budget’s Planning Investment and Control program, which requires highly structured oversight and control of projects. The oversight program also ensures that IT investments are aligned with the agency mission and that they minimize risk and maximize returns throughout the investment life cycle.

EPA’s CFO and Jackson will soon conduct a second round of reviews, focusing on second-tier projects less than $3 million.  There are more than 80 such projects at EPA, Jackson said. The CFO, CIO and EPA officials with authority over contracts have come together to propose the changes.  

“We expect to provide new guidance that will strengthen the oversight and accountability process and address opportunities,” Jackson said.

Managers are looking more closely at large, critical projects to ensure they align with EPA’s IT architecture. “We want to make sure new developments follow all IT standards and programs, when feasible, using central services already in place rather than building something new,”  Jackson said.

OMB’s reform plan

EPA is now in a position to follow OMB’s 25-point plan for IT reform. An important part of the OMB plan is its cloud-first policy, which asks agencies to identify three applications to move to the cloud and then migrate those applications within the next 18 months.

Cloud computing provides on-demand access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources that can be rapidly provisioned with little management effort by the service provider. The Obama administration is pushing for agencies to adopt the cloud computing model when possible to achieve cost savings and improve IT efficiency.

Along those lines, EPA plans to move e-mail, help-desk and security services to a cloud platform to comply with OMB’s cloud-first policy, Jackson said.  But it won’t stop there. “We’re not looking at just those three,” Jackson said, adding that the agency is looking across its entire IT portfolio to decide which applications make sense for migration to the cloud. 

To that end, he has asked EPA’s chief technology officer to direct development of the agency’s cloud strategy. So far, EPA has not decided whether e-mail will be deployed in an EPA private cloud or hosted by a commercial provider, Jackson said.

But the agency is looking to establish a common set of standards for external and internal cloud services that will help the agency reap the maximum benefits of cloud technology without increasing the risk level, Jackson said. EPA is also looking to extend services via an internal, private cloud to all four EPA data centers, he said.

“I want to get in front of managing agency technology rather than being reactive,” Jackson said.

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