For NRC’s Ash, information comes before technology

Nuclear Regulatory Commission CIO Darren Ash has some definite views on how technology can change government.

Ash Darren

Nuclear Regulatory Commission CIO Darren Ash

When Darren Ash started in government at the Internal Revenue Service in the early 1990s, he worked in a football field-size area full of tax returns.

"Back then, it was very paper-intensive," Ash said. "When you got a tax return from an individual, there was a limit on the amount of information you could key-enter."

As technology evolved quickly late in the last century and early in this one, the temptation to buy the next shiny object that flashed past was often too tempting to ignore. Dozens of agencies, including the IRS, spent millions on IT projects that never met expectations.

Now, as chief information officer at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Ash says he doesn't feel the pressure to adopt the latest thing just because other organizations are.

"Technology really is the delivery mechanism," Ash said. "It's about the information. It's about the capabilities that you're providing."

Ash got his first taste of agency modernization at the IRS, where he was a part of its major revamp. After holding several positions at the Treasury and Transportation departments, Ash joined the NRC in 2007.

Iterating quickly on mobile

These days, the explosion of mobile connectivity at the NRC is a key challenge for Ash -- far more so than he might have predicted.

"Five or six years ago, we knew mobile was important, but I don't think we could have predicted how important and how much it would change things," Ash said. "I mean, we weren't talking about different types of tablets back then."

Tablets are the device of choice for a growing segment of the federal workforce, and bring-your-own-device options are spreading. At the NRC, where BYOD has been an option for two years, about 500 of the roughly 3,800 employees use their own devices for work.

"Technology and the pace of change have caused us to think about really what is our delivery model and mechanism, what's the right and most efficient way to do business," Ash said. "We went into BYOD knowing that the pace of change for that type of solution was changing quickly and the investment we made was such that we knew likely, in a year and half or two years, we would have to change."

Now, NRC is shifting to a new version of the BYOD solution. Ash wouldn't talk specifics, but he and his team have been working on the next phase for the past six months and are expecting to roll out a pilot soon.

"We spent a great deal of time doing pre-work before we even launched the BYOD technology," Ash said. "We worked things out with our local union chapter, with security, privacy, records, our stakeholders internally, our attorneys -- to make sure we're comfortable doing it this way before we turn it on, " Ash said.

No rush to the cloud

Despite the growing migration to the cloud in government, Ash said NRC is taking its time in figuring out what makes the most sense for the organization as a whole.

The opportunity to move to the cloud came up when he and his team recognized they had to do a serious refresh of some of their data center hardware. After "taking a hard look" at their systems and information, they decided to move local systems and applications to a private cloud.

"It's thinking about how can we become more efficient, get virtualized, reduce the number of servers, reduce energy consumption," Ash said. "But doing it in a smart way, so that we're not replacing server for server."

The earlier we can connect all the different pieces and identify who the stakeholders are, then we're in a better spot.

Whether NRC will move other facets of its organization to the cloud has been considered for years, but currently the organization is taking it "one step at a time."

"Right now for cloud, our best opportunity is around the things we're doing, which is getting our house in order and getting things virtualized and doing a lot of the necessary stuff that will better enable us for the future, and other types of cloud offerings," Ash said.

The NRC is also working to finalize a plan to address the mandate on electronic records, and Ash expects to get that out in the next couple of weeks.

"Where an organization can struggle is when different programs or projects are out on their own, without a connection," Ash said. "The earlier we can connect all the different pieces and identify who the stakeholders are, then we're in a better spot. When organizations struggle, it's because something is thought of as an afterthought at the back end -- I'd rather deal with it at the front end."

'A lot of moving pieces'

Before coming to NRC, Ash was the Transportation Department's associate CIO for IT investment management. He started at DOT in 2003 working on enterprise architecture and capital planning following passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act and E-Government Act of 2002.

Ash admits he is not a techie at heart – his undergraduate degree is in international studies -- but he sees technology and specifically his IT organization at NRC as a mechanism to enable innovation throughout the organization.

"Innovation can exist throughout the organization. It's not exclusive to the IT world. There are great ideas that come out of different parts of the organization, and it's our job to work with those ideas," he said.

With an IT staff of roughly 170, Ash also tries to lay a future foundation with his workforce.

The NRC has an extensive internship program with college and high school participants, many of whom have come back to work for the agency.

"There's a lot of moving pieces, but you always have to remain focused on the mission," Ash said. "Recognizing that as you implement modernized systems you're going to impact the mission, and you want to impact it in a positive way."

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