IT infrastructure: The 4 big obstacles and 6 ways to fix them

If CIOs can drive five tactical changes — and get the leadership support to do so — federal IT can be transformed by 2018.

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In a previous column, I introduced the topic of the importance of moving to a modern, standardized and consolidated IT infrastructure, at least at an agency-by-agency level. Such infrastructure rationalization is critical to enabling IT to be most effective in helping government mission or business customers.

In that column, I presented four structural obstacles that have greatly inhibited the federal government in making significant progress on IT infrastructure rationalization: budget, program, procurement and political obstacles.

It's not that individuals actively work against what is considered IT best practice, but "the system" as it is composed today makes it difficult to drive effective IT infrastructure rationalization. Let's discuss each of those obstacles in turn, with recommendations for addressing each one. These recommendations are not for the faint of heart, but they are critical if we hope to drive significant positive progress rather than just work around the fringes.

Regarding budget, the primary issue is that most IT spending lives not in a budget overseen by a CIO but rather is scattered in numerous agency budgets, as dictated by how appropriations are structured for that agency. Pulling funds from numerous appropriations, although doable through transfers or working capital funds, is cumbersome at best and puts the CIO and IT organization at a significant disadvantage by forcing the CIO to cajole users to cooperate. I recommend the following actions be taken to address this budget obstacle:

1. The agency CIO should be given complete control over all IT infrastructure, and to the degree possible, the Office of Management and Budget should apportion the amount for IT infrastructure from each appropriation for all of those funds to be managed by the agency CIO. Agency chief financial officers must be partners with the CIOs to make this possible.

2. In parallel, OMB should work with agencies and appropriations committees on Capitol Hill to realign IT infrastructure spending across an agency so that those funds are moved under the agency CIO. The infrastructure for any new IT program would be provided by the agency CIO's organization, with funds allocated by the program to the agency CIO through the budget process.

Regarding program obstacles, the biggest issue is that in the past, major IT programs have typically handled the procurement of their own IT infrastructure, which works against the consolidation model. Yet programs need to deliver, and in many agencies, the CIO organization has not been in a position to provide enterprise IT infrastructure services. CIOs must step up to this responsibility. My recommendation is:

3. Agency CIOs should be given the responsibility and resources to assume accountability for existing agency IT infrastructure, and they should leverage the PortfolioStat process to develop a three- to five-year plan for modernizing and standardizing President's Management Council Regarding procurement ideas, forward-looking agencies are grappling with the best way to move into modern business models for procuring IT infrastructure, most notably cloud-based services. I give OMB (through the Office of E-government and IT and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy) and the General Services Administration credit for attempting to address new business models, and I believe more could be done, specifically:

4. OMB should provide leadership in working with agencies to develop model procurement packages (to include statements of objectives, contract clauses, service-level agreement language, etc.) that can be leveraged by procurement organizations at the agency level. The model packages would draw on expertise and experience from agencies that are already deploying new models, along with leading private-sector organizations. Implementation and use of those model procurement packages would be monitored through the PortfolioStat process.

5. GSA should be tasked with developing a set of IT infrastructure services, which goes well beyond just providing contract vehicles. Many smaller agencies are not in a good position to develop and operate their own IT infrastructure. GSA could assemble a set of services available to small and even large agencies that could not only let them shed much responsibility for day-to-day operations, but allow them to take advantage of the collective buying power of multiple agencies, similar to what the Defense Information Systems Agency provides in the Defense Department.

It's not that individuals actively work against what is considered IT best practice, but "the system" as it is composed today makes it difficult to drive effective IT infrastructure rationalization.

Finally, and most important, is overcoming the political obstacles. Based on my own observations while sitting in a CIO chair twice, it is critical that the above actions be supported by the White House and other decision-makers above the federal CIO level. My recommendation is:

6. Leaders should make modernizing and standardizing IT infrastructure at each agency an imperative in order to achieve a more effective and efficient government. Secretaries and deputy secretaries should be engaged in the effort, and measures of success should be tracked by the President's Management Council.

These six actions, if properly executed, can transform government IT over a three- to five-year period. Actions 1 through 5 are tactical management actions, while 6 is about leadership. Many of us have seen government try to implement variants of 1 through 5, but without 6, those efforts have been kept to the fringes. Although there are notable successes, overall we have made marginal progress.

Next month, I will address the thorny issue of IT investment management: How does an agency maximize the use of funds for IT to best support the mission and business of that agency?

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