CIO Council gets serious about best practices

Ever since the Obama administration announced its ambitious 25-point plan for reforming IT management last December, there has been a lot of interest in what role the federal CIO Council would take in implementing the plan.

One of the major players is Richard Spires, the council’s vice chairman and CIO at the Homeland Security Department.

Spires, who came to the government several years ago after two decades in the private sector, is pushing the council to take ownership of key governmentwide initiatives and use its expertise to support the Obama administration's plan. As part of his desire to ensure the success of IT programs governmentwide, he is establishing concrete ways for council members and other federal IT practitioners to share best practices with one another.

He must balance all those activities with his leadership priorities at DHS, which include improving how the department runs its own programs.

Spires met recently with staff writer Alyah Khan to discuss the importance of using best practices and building tighter relationships among CIOs and what the council is doing to support the administration’s IT reform effort.

FCW: How has your experience as CIO at the Internal Revenue Service and DHS shaped your goals as vice chairman of the CIO Council?

Spires: When I came to the [IRS in 2004] after 20 years in the private sector,…I didn’t feel like there was a strong sense of community. For instance, when I had a problem in trying to set up and do requirements definition better within IRS for our projects, I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t know where else in the government they did it well.

I couldn’t go to a site that told me or gave me best practices on how to do it. I’d really like to see us change that because there’s a lot of expertise in the government. There are lots of pockets of excellence. But I don’t think we do a good job — even within departments like this one — of highlighting those [pockets] and making that available to others — in the sense of artifacts or templates or tools that could be leveraged, but also just expertise and advice.

Trying to build that community within IT I really believe is the job of the federal CIO Council. In my tenure as vice chair, I’d like to focus on two things: 1) helping [Federal CIO Vivek Kundra] carry out the 25-point IT reform plan both as the DHS CIO and as the vice chair, and 2) helping us build a stronger community in which we can institutionalize sharing and best practices reuse across the community.

FCW: How do you plan to go about building a stronger CIO community?

Spires: One of the things we’ve really worked to strengthen is the [council's] Management Best Practices Committee. We’ve got three leads who are taking [the committee] seriously…and I’m working with them. I’m staying engaged in this.

We’re working to set up a true community, an internal community, where not only the CIOs but IT practitioners from across the government can get together. We’re working to stand up a repository that would enable us to share or store best practices and artifacts, tools, templates or whatever it may be, as well as building a collaborative Web 2.0 environment where can share. We’re working on that right now.

We want the council to be more than just a policy-making body. We want it to really take some ownership here of some important cross-cutting government initiatives. I’ll give you one example: the [Federal] Data Center Consolidation Initiative. We’ve stood up a task force under the council, and I’m a co-chair of that together with Bernie Mazer, [CIO at the Interior Department]. Each agency can work on [data center consolidation] itself, but there’s power in us working together.

FCW: At the White House Forum on Transforming Federal IT Management in April, you talked about best practices. Why are they important and how do you use them successfully?

Spires: I’ll give you an example. I’ve reviewed all 90-plus major IT programs in this department. A lot of times, you’ll find a program management office frankly won’t have all the skill sets that it should have. 

They’re off trying to run this program, but it’s very evident they aren’t bringing the state-of-the-art IT capability to how you manage this stuff. I’ve become a big believer that programs need help. They can’t know it all. So how do you get the help?

I think it’s a combination of things. It’s both help in…[saying] here’s a template for how you do a functional requirements document…. Here’s a template on how you do a test management plan. It kind of walks you through all the things you need to consider.

So it’s those kinds of artifacts…that we want to put in repositories and make available across the whole government.

But it’s even more than that. Here’s a set of experts in testing…. They can give you advice. Here at DHS we’re working to set up these centers of excellence in various disciplines both to pick the right artifacts, tools, templates and the like, but also to be experts. It doesn’t mean it’s their full-time job, typically, but we’re going to make them available 10 percent of the time so they can be tutors.

Programs that get off on the right foot have a high percentage chance that they will continue. Programs that get off on the wrong foot, there’s a very high percentage chance they’ll run into problems. It’s so critical to get it right out of the gate. This idea of bringing best practices — tools, templates, advice — is, I think, one of the true measures of maturity of whether an institution or organization really knows how to run programs.

FCW: What projects or initiatives has the CIO Council undertaken to help implement the Obama administration’s IT reform plan?

Spires: The CIO Council is playing a significant role in implementing the 25-point plan in a number of areas. I mentioned the Data Center Consolidation Task Force earlier. The [council's] Architecture and Infrastructure Committee is looking at cloud capabilities and partnering with [the General Services Administration] on putting in contract vehicles for cloud usage.

We’re partnering the IT Workforce Committee of the council with [the Office of Personnel Management] to look at the career track issues around program managers.

The CIO Council is partnering with the [Chief Financial Officers] Council and starting to look at what we’d like to have around budget flexibilities. The CIO Council is partnering with the [Chief Acquisition Officers Council] and looking at how we can better align the acquisition with the IT function to enable better delivery of programs in the federal government.

We’re really engaged mainly through the committee structure in supporting many of the elements of driving the plan. We’re doing that so we can get uniformity of how agencies implement this across the board, rather than having each agency go out and do their own thing on the 25 points.

Everyone is going to have to tailor [the plan] to their agency to some degree. But the degree to which we can have uniformity…is good.

About the Author

Alyah Khan is a staff writer covering IT policy.


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