FCW Perspectives

Are the stars aligning for IT transformation?

Shutterstock image: illuminated connections between devices. 

Cloud-first mandates, cyber vulnerabilities in legacy systems and the budgetary drain of keeping old systems running have combined to make IT modernization a central emphasis throughout 2017. And now with agencies beginning their mandatory moves from Networx to the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions contracts for a vast range of infrastructure and services, government has a rare chance to rethink IT.

According to the CIOs and other IT leaders FCW convened on Oct. 25, however, there's no guarantee agencies will seize that opportunity. As the following recap of their discussion makes clear, legacy mindsets, cost concerns and the EIS timeline itself could all work against true transformation.

The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution (see sidebar for a list of participants), and the quotes included below have been edited for length and clarity.

The EIS opportunity

"We're seeing a coalescence of events take place," one CIO said. "You see modernization plans coming out of the White House. You have executive orders on efficiency and effectiveness. We're trying to formulate our thoughts around how to provide better government — a better, more effective approach."

The EIS transition, that CIO and others said, provides a rare opportunity to rethink agencies' approach to IT infrastructure, but the emphasis to date has been on speed and cost savings. "It's how to be efficient fast," the CIO said. "As we start formulating how EIS plays into transformation for our agency, we're asking: How do we drive down costs quickly? And how do we ensure that we understand how that affects each of the mission spaces?"

Another CIO characterized EIS as an opportunity to optimize agencies' infrastructure first and only then think about transformation. He said the Networx contract was really about stabilization and standardizing the government's approach to telecom — and those standards are now due for an update.

Because the EIS contract is designed to evolve over its 15-year duration, a crawl-walk-run approach makes sense, the CIO said. "As long as the vehicle allows us to go from optimization to transformation, that's the key," he said. "I don't think you're going to get transformation right out of the box because many of us are going to be trying to just figure out how to actually address the challenge of resources and the need from the CFO community for this stuff to cost less."

Others agreed that EIS' flexibility was encouraging. Although it's possible that some "quantum shift in technology" could render portions of the contract obsolete, one said, EIS was designed with "the idea that we can't have a 15-year vehicle that looks great at the beginning and is crap at the end."

Some, however, expressed concern that there would not be the time and resources to rethink fundamental approaches, and the existing architecture would essentially get baked into EIS task orders.

"That idea of expending the energy and time upfront to think through your strategy, and having the capital budget to be able to do that, is sometimes hard to get to," one said, citing some cloud migrations as an example.

"Folks are saying, 'Yeah, we're making that move to cloud,'" he said, but they simply detail the systems and applications they're already running, then tell a cloud service provider to "carve out some space for me in your cloud that does that kind of stuff, and then I'm just going to pick up the whole thing and move it over."

FCW Perspectives

Participants

Richie Balkissoon
Cloud Architect, Department of Homeland Security

Shawn Fitzgerald
Research Director, World Wide Digital Transformation Strategies, IDC Insights

Ed Fox
Vice President of Network Services, MetTel

Robert Frum
CIO, Navy International Programs Office, Department of the Navy

Adrian Gardner
CIO, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Diana Gowen
General Manager and Senior Vice President, Federal Program, MetTel

Sanjay Gupta
CTO, Small Business Administration

Michael Hermus
CTO, Department of Homeland Security

Robert Leahy
Deputy CIO, Office of Personnel Management

Stephen Rice
Deputy CIO, Department of Homeland Security

Max Silber
Vice President of Mobility, MetTel

Antonio Villafana
CIO, Office of Health Affairs, Department of Homeland Security

Robert Williams
Acting Chief Information Security Officer, National Council on Disability

Robert Wuhrman
Enterprise Architect, Unified Shared Services Management, General Services Administration

Note: FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider and 1105 Public Sector Media Group President and Chief Content Officer Anne A. Armstrong led the roundtable discussion. The Oct. 25 gathering was underwritten by MetTel, but both the substance of the discussion and the recap on these pages are strictly editorial products. Neither MetTel nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their Oct. 25 comments.

"There are so many changes that are going to come in the network world," another executive said. "Is this vehicle designed for that? Will it stay two steps ahead of what the requirements are, or will it stay behind the curve and then we are always catching up?"

Yet several participants said the real test was not whether EIS is adaptable, it's whether agencies are able to answer fundamental questions about their IT strategies while still adhering to the three-year timeline for migrating from Networx to EIS.

"We're not just having that conversation about whether we need to modernize the network we own," one executive said. "We're having a conversation about 'do we even need to own a network?'"

"Those are big, thorny conversations where the right level of legwork needs to be done to know what the secondary and tertiary effects are," he added.

Another participant agreed that a fundamental question agencies should be asking is: Do we really want to be in the business of owning a network? "You've skipped right past that if you've already written into a contract that you're going to do these sets of things for me," he said.

'There's IT modernization, and then there's transformation'

The roundtable participants said they are doing their best to seize the opportunity. "What I'm trying to figure out is how we get to the agility, performance and security that the network needs in the new world order of cloud, of agile, of DevOps," one said. "These are buzzwords, but they are real things that have real consequences in how we operate the business. If the network doesn't enable that, then all we've done is gotten a new network that works in the old way."

"There's IT modernization, and then there's transformation," another said, and the latter requires more than technology. "To truly transform our respective agencies requires process changes, requires cultural changes, requires looking at how we do business differently."

The CIO who stressed the need to optimize first agreed, asking, "How many agencies are ready to do transformation right now?"

The pros and cons of White House interest

The slow pace of political appointments at many agencies is frequently cited as a problem for federal IT, but roundtable participants said top-level leadership has not been an issue on that front.

"They want us rolling," one CIO said, referring to both agency leaders and White House officials. "They are expecting plans. They've given us some hard dates. They've given us some monumental challenges, and we need to start this. Every conversation we have with leadership ties to efficiency and effectiveness."

Another participant agreed, adding that some smaller agencies feel as though their very existence depends on meeting the modernization mandates. "There's talk of small and micro agencies being on the chopping block," he said, and "that's getting them really motivated because they don't want to get on the radar. There's $3 million here, $10 million there, so that's an excuse to just roll them up and roll them out the window."

The real problem with political vacancies is the stasis it allows in the career ranks, one executive said. Noting that his agency has had acting leadership "for quite some time," he said the top career officials have been in place for years, with mindsets that are similarly unchanged. Multiple agency CIOs have tried to change that, he said, but "it's a huge influence on what we're able to do or not do."

Other participants acknowledged that challenge but stressed the importance of using pressure from the top to drive change.

"You get the culture of how it affects their day-to-day mission," one executive said of the career officials resisting reinvention. "And you get the culture about how it affects their source of funding." But in every meeting with the Office of Management and Budget, he said, the questions are the same: How are you aligning to the executive orders on cybersecurity and modernization, and how are you driving efficiency?

"Whatever interests my supervisor fascinates me," the executive quipped. "The leadership team above me is very interested in driving down costs. They have turned to me and told me to get things done, and we're going to get things done. I make sure every one of the CIOs and CISOs of the components is tied in. And if they're not fascinated, they are fascinated when I do their performance reviews."

Speaking CFO

Participants agreed that one key to driving that change is framing IT modernization and transformation in terms the chief financial officers can understand.

"CFOs want us to save money," one executive said. "We want something that's easily maintained so we can understand our cost savings, so we can start driving some of the other priorities."

But "the savings calculation has been a lot simpler when it's a like-for-like" change, another said. When the conversation turns to transforming the IT infrastructure, "it's not an apples-to-apples comparison from the cost perspective."

Some participants suggested building a full modernization strategy and then developing multiple roadmaps to match different budget scenarios.

"We look at it as delivering this in chunks," one executive said. "As we have the budget to do certain things, we work on those things, but we're thinking innovation in the back of our minds."

Others, however, said the best approach is to find ways to self-fund transformation efforts, then use those results to show the CFO why such investments make sense.

The old approach of "give me more dollars and I'll transform" is no longer valid, one CIO said. "You need to show the CFO how you extract money from somewhere else and apply it here. I think it's a fundamental mind shift."

Another executive said that, in some cases, risk management can be the lingua franca. But the language absolutely has to change. "You have to be direct, but you've got to be direct in terms they understand," he added.

"When I'm talking to the CFO, I'm talking money numbers," he said. "When I'm talking to acquisition, I'm talking efficiencies and the number of contract transactions that need to take place. When I'm talking to a component CIO, I need to be able to talk about maintainability, ease and visibility into the costs. When I'm talking to an operator — pick any part of the edge — they need to know what's in it for them."

The trick is to knit all those different dialects into a common understanding of the challenges and trade-offs, several participants said.

"You have to talk differently, but you have to take a simple common denominator" that everyone can understand, one CIO said. For example, taking stakeholders to an agency data center and then to a cloud service provider's facility can make the recapitalization benefits of IT transformation far clearer.

Similarly, he said, senior executives have slowly absorbed the business implications of agile. "Our deputy undersecretary for management probably says the word 'agile' six times a day. I don't think he knows what it means, but he knows the concept of what I can get from it."

As a result of those translation and education efforts, he said, "we become wanted participants at every single meeting the department has because they now know that everything that drives mission is IT in one way, shape or form."

The importance of getting it right

Again and again, the group came back to the twin pressures of saving money while seizing the chance to truly modernize.

"Outside of it being a contract transition, if you lay out the reform, you lay out the executive orders, you look at this coalescence of this vehicle, it's forcing conversations about, 'What are we?'" one participant said.

Yet even the basic migration from Networx to EIS is "a tremendously larger program than it was in that last transition," another said. "Before you even get to modernization versus transformation versus delivery, that's a tight time frame."

"I would hate to see agencies go through a process where they say, 'Boy, this is a once-every-15-year opportunity, but we've got to stick to like-for-like,'" a third executive added. "I cringe at the thought that part of the calculation is, 'However, because of the time frames, we're going to be forced to do this.'"

Others warned against modernizing without regard for mission. "If we start piling money into building new things just because they're newer than the old things we had, that's going to be a colossal waste of money," one participant said. "What we really need to focus on is, 'Are we improving those outcomes? How are we focused like lasers on investing money in IT, in technology, but also supporting cultural and other changes that have to occur to drive improved outcomes for our missions?'"

"This is such a big complicated change that we can't do it all in one bite," another said. "And if we make the wrong foundational decisions upfront, it precludes options down the road. The challenge is trying to identify what boxes us in and what gives us options."

He added that "if you can embed that and integrate that with the folks trying to drive mission outcomes and enable them to take risks and to be more innovative, then I think you win."

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is editor-in-chief of FCW and GCN.

Prior to joining 1105 Media in 2012, Schneider was the New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, National Journal, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

Click here for previous articles by Schneider, or connect with him on Twitter: @troyschneider.


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