White House sketches plans to staff its modernization efforts

A new solicitation sets the stage for a new advisory structure to help the Office of American Innovation modernize federal IT.

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The White House's Office of American Innovation is looking to set the stage for IT modernization efforts under the Trump administration by establishing a quartet of research centers, each dedicated to a core aspect of modern technology.

A Request for Information released Oct. 20 by the General Services Administration on behalf of OAI seeks feedback on how best to create "centers of excellence" on identity management and authentication, cloud computing, consolidated contact centers and data transparency and access. According to the document, these centers would be staffed by a mix of federal employees and industry contractors, with an emphasis on bringing in high-caliber technologists with a background in disruption and change management.

Former Federal Communications Commission CIO David Bray, who chaired the existing Federal Cloud Center of Excellence before leaving government in September, said the four pillars emphasized by OAI are consistent with the modernization vision proffered by previous top technology policymakers, such as Obama-era federal CIO Tony Scott and Karen Evans, former administrator for the office of electronic government at the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush.

"If you want to improve the agility, resiliency, and effectiveness of what public service provides, these would be key focus areas," said Bray.

The RFI is relatively brief and short on detail, but the focus of the four centers tracks closely with technologies and subjects that are featured in OAI's IT modernization draft plan, released in August 2017.

For example, restructuring the federal government's network architecture to facilitate widespread cloud deployment is one of the core goals of the administration's modernization vision. One center would be focused on leveraging offerings from a wide variety of industry cloud service providers.

Another center, focused on improving transparency and access to data across the federal government, is also consistent with the administration's modernization plan, which argues for a cloud-based network architecture that will make it easier to define consistent requirements for access to data and transparency initiatives.

Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, told FCW that the federal government's reliance on outdated software systems and ancient code languages make it extremely difficult to format and repurpose its vast data repositories in a way that is useful to the transparency community.

"Until the last COBOL programmer [retires], you'll know that legacy systems continue to operate," he said.

However, Howard expressed skepticism that the measures listed in the RFI will lead to the kind of data transparency that watchdog organizations like the Sunlight Foundation rely on hold the government officials and programs accountable. Rather, he believes that the White House and OAI are interpreting those phrases in the context of opening up data that would be beneficial to American entrepreneurs, creating new businesses and improving existing industry practices. He pointed to the records of the Trump administration and campaign to argue that the White House is hostile to the concept of transparency in general.

"The proof is in the pudding when it comes to transparency, and given that the administration's actions often belie its words…many people like to talk about these things but when it comes to time to make disclosures, then something else happens," said Howard.

The RFI puts an emphasis on recruiting specialists with strong backgrounds in agile development. That software development methodology is being increasingly adopted at the federal level, with one survey released in September indicating that a majority of federal CIOs use it in at least half of their IT projects. Bray said that focus makes sense given the quick pace of technology modernization, but cautioned that the government would also need to tweak the non-IT processes, like acquisitions, to support agile IT project management.

"If procurement still takes six to nine months, [implementing] agile IT will be difficult," Bray said. "If policy asks for all deliverables to be provided by [a certain] date, agile will be a tad challenging, though iterative with short sprints would still be doable with set deadlines."

The RFI anticipates a multiple award structure for the future procurement, and currently envisions using indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity or best price available contracts.

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