IT modernization is a top priority for the current administration, and is expected to transform activities as diverse as cybersecurity, citizen services and data analytics. So it's not surprising agency IT teams are being pulled in a dozen different directions.
On March 13, FCW gathered a group of federal leaders to discuss how the conversation about modernization is changing and what to expect in 2018. Participants said the technology challenges can be daunting, but as is often the case in government, they pale in comparison to the cultural changes involved. Nevertheless, the group expressed excitement about the capabilities that modernization can bring.
The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution (see below for a full list of participants), and the quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Here's what the group had to say.
Hitting the reset button
Participants said the Trump administration's push for IT modernization and the Modernizing Government Technology Act are already encouraging agencies to rethink their approach to more than just technology.
"It's a great opportunity to have the top cover from the administration and the funding, hopefully, to get this done," one executive said. "But I see another opportunity in my organization to change some things. I'm looking at a culture shift and a kind of mind shift on how we do business. I want to be more adaptable, have more agility and be able to focus on cyber and data, and the only way to do those activities effectively is to change the skill set in-house. We also need to have a new strategy for managing data because I'm looking at things like deep learning and artificial intelligence."
Other participants said they, too, are taking advantage of the opportunity to consider dramatic changes. "Our agency had eight CIOs in 10 years — and a year and a half without a CIO," one executive said. "It was constant turmoil. Staffing, hiring, rewarding, contracts — everything was broken. So we decided to blow it all up and start over. And we tell everybody to steal from anybody who's done this already. Let's not reinvent it if you don't have to."
Not everyone is being quite so aggressive, however. Another participant expressed envy at being able to hit the reset button rather than having to find a way to modernize existing systems: "We need to get to the next big idea, whether it's moving into agile methodology or being able to introduce a technology and an architecture that can be flexible enough to accommodate things that you can't anticipate today. So the question I would ask is: How do you value that incremental improvement that would make it worthy of an investment, and how do convince your teams that failure is positive, not negative?"
Another shared his strategy for dealing with a risk-averse leader. "I look for top cover when I have conversations regarding things like IT modernization because I need him to know that when I speak to him, it's not a recommendation from his IT guys, but it's something that the federal government is looking at, and he may not have an opportunity to go against it."
Many participants said reorganization is a key component of modernization, and they are making changes in ways both subtle and overt.
"We had an agency of pure component CIOs," one participant said. "We've changed that paradigm so we have CIOs for specific mission areas. You have to bring all those things together because otherwise it means the CIOs only have their discussions at the bureau level, for that bureau. Sometimes they bring the agency CIO just because they say, 'I need to have the IT guy so they can do the things I tell them to do,' as opposed to saying, 'What do we need and want, and how can we get there together?'"
Another executive complained that even as a small agency, "we have to take our org changes to Capitol Hill. We wanted to rename one of our branches. It took eight months for the Hill to agree to it. So we put the same performance element in everybody's job description, which allows me to pull all the right people without having to rearrange the organization. The secret was giving everybody those same project management criteria so that they could get credit, even if they're working under another team."
Others echoed that need to manage change within the constraints of the official org chart. "I'm not so much moving divisions and branches around but looking at skill sets," another executive said. "I need to have more guys who can manage data and leverage the data analytics. I need more who can do machine learning and deep learning. So I started looking at where I bring can these people in and how they fit within the existing organizational chart."
Skill sets and leadership
The need for developing a workforce with the right mix of skills and ensuring leadership from the top were recurring, intertwined themes.
"With the administration change, we're still waiting for our political leadership to deal with a number of front-of-the-house issues, and so we're taking the opportunity while they're sorting all that out to put as much focus as we can on what I call back-of-the-house issues," one executive said. "They're not critically sexy, but they're easy to see when you get sideways because typically stuff stops working."
Another participant agreed, saying, "We focus on back-office activities because they have results that everyone can see. When you start moving away from a brick-and-mortar data center construct to a cloud and making it hybrid, then you've got to look at the skill sets necessary within the cloud infrastructure. So the catch is, how do you ensure that you have uniformity of the capabilities and enforce your security controls around a hybrid brick-and-mortar and a cloud environment? You can't do that if your leadership's not on the same page."
That statement struck a chord with colleagues. "Change like this takes time and it takes focus, and part of the challenge I see is a continuity of leadership," one participant said. "I think the average tenure for a CIO is below two years. How do we get important things done if leadership is always flipping over? And how do we work through budget uncertainty?"
The group agreed that the conversation is becoming more complex and multilayered by necessity. "The technology part in the past has been more like an infrastructure piece, but now it's a business enabler," one participant said. "CIOs and the technology people can slide the innovation toward technology, such as cloud, AI or whatever is needed. But the CIO has to work with the chief human capital officer, the chief financial officer and the program leaders to build the future up for us."
Deputy CIO, Small Business Administration
Director, Government Solutions, CA Technologies
Deputy CIO, Department of Homeland Security
Associate CIO, Department of Agriculture
Chief Architect, National Science Foundation
CIO, Export-Import Bank of the United States
Vice President, CA Technologies
CIO, Office of Health Affairs, Department of Homeland Security
Note: FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider led the roundtable discussion. The March 13 gathering was underwritten by CA Technologies, but both the substance of the discussion and the recap on these pages are strictly editorial products. Neither CA nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their March 13 comments.
In addition, the IT team needs to broaden its expertise. "One of the things that we've put an incredible focus on is embedding finance and procurement skills on the IT team," another executive said. "I've got project managers handling some of this stuff a lot better than their colleagues, and we found that it was crucial for our modernization accomplishments over the last three years to nail down some of those unsexy administrative competencies that are so critical to execution in the IT space."
As one participant summed it up: "Modernization involves modernizing so many different things — the workforce, the business principles or processes, the underlying technology. My supervisors are interested right now in change, so my team is fascinated with delivering plans that we can share weekly to meet the expectations of my leadership. We've gone multidisciplinary, and we pull people with different skill sets who may not actually be the right fit, but if they have the right drive, the right technical skills and the right curiosity, we want to reach out to them."
Evolving technology capabilities
Of course, the technical details themselves cannot be overlooked. "You can't do a lot of the IT modernization work without laying the foundation and thinking about infrastructure," one executive said. "You can't have an aging infrastructure. To put something like artificial intelligence on it, you've got to have it secured, and it's got to be fast and scalable."
"And you've got to make sure processes are evolving, too, because mission areas change," another participant said. "These older systems that I have were built to support an existing process 15 or 20 years ago. Those processes have evolved. I have to make sure my engine and my system can support those processes to modernize."
When asked whether and how the Modernizing Government Technology is helping, one participant said: "It is definitely an enabler. Because MGT is not going to be a one-time effort, it makes IT think differently of their investments. Most of the agencies I've seen still think of IT as an expenditure."
Another participant from a small agency said: "We don't have a working capital fund, and that's one thing that MGT now authorizes us to do."
The conversation also turned to how cloud and as-a-service technologies can facilitate modernization. Participants said they are using whatever fits their mission needs, which for some agencies means all those capabilities.
When it comes to cloud adoption, "the initial driver was infrastructure as a service. That was two or three years back," one executive said. "Soon we realized that cloud is an enabler of innovation rather than just a way to save money. You have to build a hybrid cloud model at some point because one is not going to give you all that you need."
Another participant agreed, saying: "If you want to do machine learning and deep learning, you've got to be able to deploy large neural networks. You cannot do that in the same environment where you have your mission-critical apps running. You've got to have an environment where you can put that stuff and know that you have the bandwidth and the scalability within that isolated environment where you can do that type of work. You've got to look at private clouds and hybrid clouds and have the right infrastructure to support this work."
A third added: "I'm sitting on mounds and mounds of data that I need to make sense of. My focus right now is deep learning, but I also want to do some work in machine learning. In the past, we really haven't had the tools to make sense of it, and I've been asked to look at what we can do with that dataset so we can do better market analysis and better protect the country."
In other words, modernization is not an end in itself but a means to expand agencies' capabilities in ways that are still evolving.
"MGT reinforces necessity," a participant said. "It's no longer just one CIO or one line of business looking for change. It is one department or multiple departments looking at change simultaneously, and that builds energy and momentum."