IT infrastructure: Critical for long-term success

Richard Spires considers the possibilities of consolidation — and the structural obstacles to overcome.

Richard Spires

For more than eight years, I had the pleasure and privilege of serving the federal government in a number of senior-level positions, in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. Based on my experience, I believe that improving IT management and delivery in the federal government can have as great an impact on government efficiency and effectiveness as anything else that can be done.

Given that belief, I'm excited to launch this new series with FCW in which I will take a look at ways we can improve IT management in government.

My aim is not merely to assert but to show through logic and demonstrable experience why I advocate for a certain approach. I welcome well-reasoned comments on these columns, especially those that bring credible arguments to challenge my views. Although this is not a blog, I do intend to public answer comments that I believe bring up particularly insightful or provocative views.

* * *

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to be in a meeting that included a number of the CIOs for Fortune 50 companies, organizations in which IT has been a true competitive discriminator. In the course of the discussion, it became clear that effectively leveraging IT for an enterprise requires the modernization, standardization and appropriate consolidation of the underlying IT infrastructure — including networking, computing and some standard software platforms, in particular email and other collaboration tools.

All the CIOs concurred that although one objective was to be more efficient and save money, a consolidated IT infrastructure also enabled more effective and timely delivery of new capabilities for their business customers and improved the overall IT security posture of their organizations. All the CIOs acknowledged that the process of standardizing and consolidating IT infrastructure is difficult, but all argued that it is critical for long-term success.

The session was another powerful validation to me of one of the fundamental problems underlying the issues we face in federal government IT: the inability to properly modernize, standardize and consolidate our IT infrastructure.

Since the beginning of the Obama administration, there have been a number of interrelated initiatives driven by the federal CIO to address the issues of IT infrastructure, at least at an agency-by-agency level. Under Vivek Kundra, the Federal Data Center Consolidation and cloud-first initiatives were born. Steve VanRoekel created PortfolioStat, which subsumed those earlier initiatives with the intent of helping each agency develop an approach to rationalize its IT infrastructure.

Each of those initiatives is well-intentioned, and very capable employees at the Office of Management and Budget are working with each agency on their plans. Yet in almost all large agencies, we are far from the level of modernization, standardization and consolidation laid out in the discussion by private-sector CIOs. In most instances, the agency CIO does not have control or oversight over all IT infrastructure, and in some agencies, the CIO has surprisingly little insight and oversight. Further, although the CIO community might agree on what should be done in IT infrastructure rationalization, there is not the buy-in across the leadership of government that these initiatives are foundational to the improvement of government effectiveness.

I have been in the crucible twice as a government CIO, and from that vantage point, I believe there are four systemic areas critical to achieving the degree of modernization, standardization and consolidation necessary for real operational and cost efficiency. In each of these areas, there are structural obstacles, but I believe that if those obstacles can be overcome, we can modernize, standardize and consolidate IT infrastructure.

Budget structure. The appropriations process typically scatters funds for IT throughout an agency budget. That makes it very difficult for a CIO to consolidate and standardize because it requires agreement among many stakeholders and mechanisms to appropriately gather funds from their many line items.

Program structure. Most large IT programs are the responsibility of a mission or business organization in an agency, not the direct responsibility of the CIO's office. Ten to 15 years ago, given the state of IT at the time, having a program own its infrastructure made sense and was the only practical way to deliver a working system. That is no longer the case, but agencies are often trapped: The program needs to deliver, but it lacks available shared infrastructure and so buys its own, perpetuating the stovepipe approach to delivering systems and forestalling the consolidation of shared IT infrastructure.

Procurement structure. Although there is clearly nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation that precludes moving to a modernized, standardized and consolidated IT infrastructure, the current models for acquisition and procurement present significant hurdles to overcome in terms of migrating from existing contracts to new business models.

Political structure. This is the largest barrier because government culture tends to value mission-oriented expertise and experience much more than support-function expertise and experience, including IT. Further, agency leaders tend to focus on shorter-term (less than two years) initiatives in which significant mission impact can be achieved. Overhauling a complex IT infrastructure can be a five-year undertaking, with little payback accrued in the first couple of years. This is not politically viable in many agencies.

To see those four structural forces at work, you need look no further than the lack of adherence to the Clinger-Cohen Act, which established the agency CIO. The law is supposed to provide an agency CIO with authority over IT and direct reporting to the agency head. Precious few CIOs can claim they have anything close to those authorities. The Government Accountability Office concluded that "CIOs do not consistently have responsibility for 13 major areas of IT and information management as defined by law or deemed as critical to effective IT management."

Although I believe the current Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act to be helpful, I do not believe any legislation by itself will be sufficient to address the key issue of IT infrastructure rationalization or the larger set of issues in IT management.

Let me address the argument I have heard numerous times that centralizing control of IT infrastructure under a single agency CIO makes IT much less responsive to mission and business customers. A modernized, consolidated infrastructure creates the opportunity to accelerate delivery of business capabilities, including greater integration across applications and systems and improved operational scalability and efficiency.

In federated departments such as Treasury and Commerce, there still need to be bureau-level CIOs and IT organizations. Under that model, the bureau IT organizations can focus on working closely with mission customers to provide new functionality and ultimately improve mission outcomes, while relying on the agency CIO's organization to provide and maintain the IT infrastructure. To make that work, however, the bureau CIOs must have a seat at the table with the agency CIO as part of a governance process that ensures that consolidated agency decisions are informed by an understanding of the various bureaus' needs.

My next column will present recommendations on how to reduce the obstacles that limit government's ability to achieve a modernized, standardized and appropriately consolidated IT infrastructure.

Inspiration

When I run across something that I find particularly valuable in helping government, I will highlight it. In that vein, the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton's report "Building the Enterprise: Nine Strategies for a More Integrated, Effective Government" provides an excellent set of strategies and is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in improving government effectiveness. (Download it here.) However, implementing those strategies requires real leadership and strong execution. I hope the Obama administration brings both to its new management agenda.

NEXT STORY: Toting up federal tweets

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