White House floats vision for IT modernization


The White House released a plan to modernize federal IT by accelerating cloud adoption, consolidating networks and prioritizing key applications for needed upgrades.

The report, issued on Aug. 30 by Chris Liddell, director of the White House's American Technology Council, and Jack Wilmer, senior policy advisor with the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, sets two high-level goals -- a vision for the future of federal IT maximizing secure use of the best commercial technology available, and a plan to jumpstart the government's transition to that vision.

Unlike many White House policy reports, the document is heavy on deliverables in the next two-12 months from agencies tasked with oversight of some key areas for IT modernization across government.

"It is a big bite, but needed," former Federal CIO Tony Scott told FCW in an email. 

The plan calls for federal agencies to detail in-process and planned cloud migration projects within 30 days. After that deadline, those projects will undergo a 30-day review by a new board with representation from the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program management office, the Technology Transformation Service, the U.S. Digital Service, the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security. The projects will then be prioritized for cloud migration, based on the risks involved in making such a move securely.

Also within 30 days, the National Institute for Standards and Technology is tasked with developing a plan to "promote a risk management culture that focuses agency effort on the operational performance and compliance of their most valuable systems," as well as a timeline for the update of key federal information security standards.

It also asks DHS within the next 60 days to give the General Services Administration and agencies baseline configuration guidance for Managed Security Services capabilities offered under GSA's recently awarded next-generation Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions telecommunication contract. Within the  next 90 days, it asks GSA to develop a plan to help small agencies leverage EIS, as well as develop a centralized acquisition support function that can manage small agency cybersecurity-related contracts.

In the next two months, it wants the Office of Management and Budget to set up a comprehensive strategy to accelerate migration of agency email and collaboration tools to the cloud for departments and agencies "who have still not adopted cloud-based email."

Acquisition reform, said the report, is also needed to help IT modernization. The document outlines a pilot acquisition project that would create "virtual 'street corners'" that commercial cloud email providers could use to compete against one another for federal customers, which could drive down costs by leveraging the federal government's buying power, the report said.

The report was part of the White House's May 11 executive order on cybersecurity, which tasked the ATC with reporting back within 90 days on how IT federal IT modernization should proceed.

"Much of this plan is built on industry best practices, and a major point of emphasis is to maximize use of commercial capabilities," Liddell and Wilmer wrote in a blog post.

Some of the report is a call for more reporting, but there are action items included that will cost money.

"I wonder how this will get done and also how it will get paid for," Scott said, and wondered if the plan assumed that the MGT Act would pass Congress.

The Modernizing Government Technology Act, a $500 million plan to jumpstart legacy system upgrades through a central fund and special agency funds, is awaiting action in the Senate. A spokesperson for MGT Act sponsor Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said that the lawmaker "is encouraged by the White House’s American Technology Council’s efforts in identifying and providing recommendation to address substantial cybersecurity threats to the federal government that its current legacy IT systems only perpetuate. The MGT Act would allow the federal government to leverage American innovation in an expedited and competitive fashion. "

While the plan calls for the government to move fast, it's not a 180-degree policy shift from prior administration efforts.

"There is strong continuity here," Scott said.

At the same time, the policies described in the document do move the government ahead from its present posture.

"I wouldn't describe it as a distillation of thinking by current incumbents," said Dave Wennergren, a former senior Department of Defense tech official who advises on IT modernization at Deloitte Consulting.

Some observers think a continuing lack of a federal CIO and many vacant agency CIO positions could hamper implementation of comprehensive IT modernization across agencies.

“This administration’s lack of senior IT leadership, from not having a Federal CIO towing CIO vacancies across government, is very alarming and has threatened the momentum and progress we made under the Obama Administration," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), "Modernizing the federal government isn’t a partisan issue, as we have seen in the adoption of FITARA and our work on the MGT Act. But it does require the Administration’s attention and focus – which includes appointing or nominating permanent CIOs – something that has been lacking to date," he said.

Wennergren noted that IT leaders toiling deep inside organizations need direction.

"Change has got to be championed by leadership cadres. In government, that's a politically appointed leadership cadre. If those positions aren't filled, it becomes harder to drive these plans to change," Wennergren said.

IT modernization, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel for the Professional Services Council during a press roundtable on Aug. 30 before the report was released, "is an area where senior Trump-designated officials could make a huge difference in the ongoing operations of government."

However, he said the continuing lack of permanent CIOs in agencies, as well as a politically appointed top CIO, could hamper IT modernization. There's a noticeable gap between the top White House policymakers and those on the ground who have to make decisions to implement policy at the agency level.

"The gap is having some impact. Civilian career employees are going to do what's necessary to keep activities going but won't make major commitments without a nod from someone [in a political role]," he said.

This article was updated Aug. 31.

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.


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