Can less money lead to more creativity?

compass innovation

Can less money lead to more innovation?

That's not an equation most managers and chief information officers overseeing cash-strapped programs and agencies would rush to embrace, yet the budgetary climate has forced some feds to come up with clever new initiatives and alternative ways to handle old problems.

At a FedInsider event titled "IT and the Federal Budget: Innovating with Less," several feds shared insight into how their agencies are improving program performance and efficiency while cutting costs.

The discussion featured all the often-used buzzwords -- shared services, virtualization, cloud-first and improved IT portfolio management -- but the real focus was on specific use cases.

One such example came from the Education Department's Office of Federal Student Aid, which identified savings through the consolidation of four websites directed at students and parents considering federal student loans.

The Office of Federal Student Aid awards $150 billion to $170 billion in student loans and grants each year – it would rank as one of the largest banks in the country based on its $1 trillion portfolio – yet prior to 2012 it maintained four duplicative websites run on separate proprietary systems that ate up millions of extra dollars of its budget.

The sites were run on a "mishmash" of systems, licenses and programs, and generally failed to perform as they should, according to panelist James McMahon, director of application development for the Office of Federal Student Aid.

McMahon said his office came up with a project called the Internal Student Experience, which replaced the four websites –,,, and – with a single in July 2012.

The project will save the office about $1.5 million over two years, and it has succeeded in other ways as well.

Internally, McMahon said, the project consolidated content, which is now centrally managed using Drupal, a flexible open-source content management system that was quickly learned by his team. McMahon's team, which had little experience in the CMS prior to the initiative, did much of the project's heavy lifting, working closely with the design firm and customers alike.

There was a risk in the consolidation efforts, McMahon said, given the broad user base and the Obama administration's spotlight on education, but the potential savings and increased efficiencies outweighed the fears of failure.

The end result for the Office of Federal Student Aid has been a cheaper website that does more, is cheaper to maintain and is viewed more favorably by the public, drawing 3 million visitors per month -- "a lot more traffic" than the four prior sites used to get, McMahon said.

"Innovation is often seen as a luxury when it comes to something not impacting the end customers," he said. "Operations come first, and the mission is the mission and you can't fail. The government tends to be risk-averse, but green lights happen more often than not if what you're doing can pay for itself. There's always a case to be made when you can point out cost savings."

Other case studies discussed came from tthe Commerce Department, the Government Printing Office, and

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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Reader comments

Fri, May 17, 2013

Necessity is the mother of invention. When you have an abundance of money you tend to waste a lot of it on trivial things that actually distract from productivity rather than increase your efficiency. One not well known fact about the education system is that for decades the top 25 states with with the highest spending per student were mostly in the bottom 25 states for student performance. You throw too much money at an organization and they tend to put their energy into things other than what they need to be productive - or creative if that is what their mission is - especially if they are not in a competative market for their product (which is the case for most Government organizations).

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