Skip the buzz, get to the innovation

Shutterstock image: illuminated light bulb signifying an innovative idea.

Innovation that doesn't fit the mission is all buzzword and no innovation, according to a panel of Department of Homeland Security CIOs who spoke at an April 13 AFCEA DC event in Arlington, Va.

"The way we innovate must be innovative," said Wolf Tombe, chief technology officer at Customs and Border Protection.

Tombe said innovative technologies and practices must be talked about in terms of how they help the mission, not in technical terms.

"If you talk 'cloud,' you may not be understood," Tombe said. However, if you talk to agency users in terms of what they can do with the technology, such as more easily matched datasets that help them do their jobs, your message will fall on more receptive ears.

The Transportation Security Administration is looking at innovation from a different perspective. TSA CIO Stephen Rice said the agency has several significant contracts expiring in the next few years. For instance, its managed services contract is set to lapse in 2015, and the agency is integrating seven data centers to get optimal efficiencies, he said. That process "has been a catalyst" to possibly moving away from infrastructure-based IT services to managed services.

Rice told FCW that the move to managed services would affect another, possibly bigger decision in 2018 when the lease for TSA's headquarters building expires. The agency would like to consolidate employees at five buildings in the Washington area.

"That will force us to look at more telework options," said Rice, who is seeking innovative solutions to help him solve the dilemma of replacing or supporting legacy systems.

Innovation for IT services and systems is constantly shifting, said Adrian Gardner, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Although FEMA, like many other federal agencies, once saw open-source solutions as a possible security threat to its public services, the agency has embraced open source for its latest services and harnessed crowdsourced applications for emergency response after Hurricane Sandy and other disasters.

All the CIOs agreed that cybersecurity can be a concern as open-source applications and other innovative technologies reveal new security vulnerabilities. But they insisted that the risks do not have to slow agencies down -- if those risks are weighed against the potential benefits.

"What's the cost of not innovating?" Tombe asked. "Our adversaries are innovating." From bombs in printer cartridges to increasingly sophisticated cross-border tunnels, "our adversaries are being very innovative."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


  • Federal 100 Awards
    Federal 100 logo

    Nominations for the 2021 Fed 100 are now being accepted

    The deadline for submissions is Dec. 31.

  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards -

    Congratulations to the 2020 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

Stay Connected