How the speed of technological change can be an opportunity

Former USDA CIO Chris Smith, now AT&T's vice president of technology, says government is coping reasonably well but could do more to lead.

Internet of Things_man with globe and dollars

AT&T's Chris Smith argues that mobile, cloud computing and the Internet of Things have untapped potential for agencies able to embrace them.

It isn't surprising that cloud, mobility and cybersecurity will be front and center federal issues for the next 18 months, but the speed with which those technologies are developing and their increasingly significant impact for agency management could present opportunities for historic change, according to a former federal CIO who is now AT&T's vice president of technology.

Chris Smith, who pioneered agency-wide cloud applications while at the Agriculture Department, said mobile capabilities in particular have the potential to drastically alter the federal landscape.

"Mobility is on a tear. Day in and day out, it's making history,” Smith said in an interview with FCW. “Think of only 10 years ago, federal agencies were struggling with basic connectivity issues. I've watched the shift in government. Back in the 1990s we were dealing with second-generation cellular service. Now it's full [wireless device and application] immersion."

That immersion, coupled with increasingly efficient cloud applications, can mean more built-in operational efficiencies for federal agencies looking to trim costs. Cloud applications, he said, mean agencies do not have to support as much costly IT infrastructure, for instance.

But agencies still must figure out the right balance of cloud and private infrastructure they need.

Machine-to-machine capabilities -- popularly known as the Internet of Things -- also have potential to bring both operational efficiency and savings for federal operations.

Customs and Border Protection and the Forest Service, both with fleets of thousands of vehicles, could use IP-based networking to keep track of mileage, maintenance and scheduling, for instance. Agencies that track things like food and supplies, including USAID and FEMA, could also use the technology to better control inventories and keep down costs.

Smith, who moved to AT&T Government Systems from Accenture in November, said federal agencies are for the most part adapting well to the quick changes technology is bringing.

The biggest issue they will have to confront as technology rolls relentlessly forward, he said, is support of legacy networks.

As much as 80 to 90 percent of federal agencies' IT budgets are spent on legacy systems, Smith said. "That needs to be down to about 60 percent. Forty percent should go to new capabilities." The heavier overhead costs, he said, can mean an agency isn't moving forward technologically and could be saddled with even more legacy operations.

Smith contends that federal agencies should try to stretch themselves technologically, even in the face of stagnant budgets.

"You can't hunker down with a bunker-like mentality with tight budgets," he said. That mindset can lead to missed opportunities. While at USDA, Smith pioneered federal agencies' use of the cloud, migrating 120,000 USDA employees to cloud applications. "Government has the opportunity to lead," he insisted.

AT&T Government Systems has been bolstering its public sector team over the past year. The AT&T division has been led by Kay Kapoor since February 2013, when she moved over from Accenture. On Jan. 21, former General Services Administration CIO Casey Coleman came on as client executive vice president. A few days later, Michael Leff, formerly a managing director at Accenture, was named a vice president. Smith had been U.S. federal chief technology and innovation officer at Accenture since 2012, after he retired from USDA.

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