Can agencies seize the moment for modernization?

There is "incredible alignment" in support of IT modernization, officials say, but better planning is needed to take full advantage.

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The coming shift to the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions acquisition vehicle offers a tremendous opportunity for transformation of agency IT systems, several officials said at an Oct. 25 event -- but only if agency officials commit to talking differently about IT modernization. 

Part of the problem, according to the General Services Administration's Bill Zielinski, is that many agencies still try to scope out modernization projects with highly specific technical requirements. "We define not only the business outcome that we're trying to achieve," Zielinski said at the FCW-hosted IT modernization event, "but we have that tendency to say, 'and this is explicitly how you're going to do that.'”

Such specific solicitations tend to produce near-identical proposals from industry, he noted, which forces agencies to select based on "lowest price technically acceptable" criteria. Worse, he said, that prescriptive approach denies agencies the opportunity to benefit from new and creative solutions that might surface if they simply described the business capability that's needed.

EIS is a 15-year, $50 billion next-generation telecom contract that will replace Networx and provide a vast range of IT infrastructure, services and connectivity. Agencies have three years to transition from Networx to EIS, and Zielinski said GSA has worked hard to ensure EIS can accommodate new approaches to IT infrastructure. But he and other speakers cautioned that this relatively short timeline could lead to "life-and-shift" modernization efforts that fail to take full advantage of the transition. 

Diana Gowen, MetTel's recently named general manager and senior vice president for federal, said that unless agencies invest in careful planning now, "EIS could be a missed opportunity" to transform government's digital operations.

Department of Agriculture acting CTO Tony Cossa, who spoke on a panel with Gowen at the event, said that government IT shops also must learn to frame modernization investments in ways that resonate with agency mission owners. 

"Understanding how to translate the geek stuff into the business value…is the most critical thing we have to do in IT," he said. "You have to translate it to their role. If you don't, you're going to fall short of getting the support and buy-in."

Planning for those conversations early, and investing the time and resources to ensure they can be constructive, are key, the speakers agreed. "You can't connect with the business side early enough on these things," Cossa said.

Department of Justice CIO Joe Klimavicz acknowledged that funding constraints make it difficult for agencies to contemplate broad changes to their operations, but he said budgets can be an excuse. 

"I look at funding as a pacing function," he said. "Funding doesn't really change where you want to get to, it just changes how fast you can get to that end state." 

DOJ, for example, has closed 77 of its 110 data centers since 2010, Klimavicz said. Those gradual changes have saved almost $100 million in operating costs, "and certainly reduced our attack surface," he said. And such savings can then free up resources for further modernization efforts.

Zielinski echoed that call to get started, noting that EIS, the administration's modernization agenda and the growing appreciation of current security risks are combining to create a rare window of opportunity.

“For the 28 years I've been in government," he said, "I don't know if we've ever had a time when the focus and the attention has been on IT modernization the way it is today."

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