Empower feds to take on the cloud

Making federal cloud computing a reality could be as simple as letting government workers do their own IT, writes Brand Niemann.

Brand Niemann is senior data scientist at Semanticommunity.net and former senior enterprise architect and data scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency.

When Mark Forman was administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget and the federal IT budget was about $58 billion, he said we would spend the money more efficiently by using enterprise architecture. "There is no way to do [more real-time distributed decision-making] without breaking the ‘rice bowls’ that ensure many federal managers' power, and those managers are going to have to accept those changes because of impatience within the administration and Congress."

Interestingly, Mark Forman recently said, “I'll be joining a colleague of mine in government reform, jumping into the cloud, with a cloud computing initiative around grants filing."

When Karen Evans was OMB's administrator of e-government and IT and the federal IT budget was about $70 billion, she said we would spend that money more efficiently by the work and performance demands that she and OMB placed on agency IT staffs.

Now Vivek Kundra, as the first federal CIO, points out that the federal IT budget has spent more than $600 billion in the past decade with little increase in productivity, and he has a 25-point plan to spend that money more efficiently by using cloud computing. Specifically, his cloud-first policy states that each agency must identify three services to move to the cloud in three months. Then agencies must move one of those services to the cloud in 12 months and the remaining two in 18 months.

So progress is being made in federal cloud computing, but not fast enough to keep pace with the world around it. What has to change to make that happen? It could be as simple as letting government workers do their own IT. In academia, if you are a biologist and want to publish your research results on the Web, you can take a course or buy a book on bioinformatics and learn to do your own IT.

More importantly, we should separate government database building from IT systems development so we get better databases from subject-matter experts that are maintained and available in open formats for use by many. Then we can tap into the innovation from inside and outside government to develop multiple creative, cost-effective applications with those databases.

In addition, government employees should become information architects and redesign existing systems. Here’s an example: The IT Dashboard took six months and cost the General Services Administration $8 million. I re-architected and implemented it in about three days for free (except for the cost of my time at the Environmental Protection Agency) by using Spotfire. Of course, part of the $8 million price tag was to build the databases, which I did not have to do.

Critics will be quick to say that the federal government has special needs for privacy, security, acquisition, etc., that preclude letting employees do their own IT. I say let’s change that knee-jerk mindset and think and act outside the box.

I have done the following:

  • In response to Kundra's call, I put my EPA desktop PC in the cloud to support the Open Government Directive and Data.gov/semantic.
  • I implemented a Gov 2.0 platform for open government in a data science library in response to federal chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra's call.
  • I built a Semantic Community Infrastructure Sandbox for 2011 to show how to make people into information architects and preservationists.
  • I developed a federal cloud computing use case and tutorial to empower others to do as I have done.

Now it’s your turn to think and act outside the box to make federal cloud computing a game changer for the government by doing your own IT.

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