IT Modernization Under President Trump
Here’s an issue on which both Republicans and Democrats agree: The federal government’s information technology infrastructure is aging, insecure and in dire need of modernization. But as President-elect Donald Trump and his core advisers race to fill key administration jobs, IT modernization is unlikely to garner much attention.
Federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott circulated a draft policy Oct. 27 laying out directions for how CIOs should establish “enterprise roadmaps” for their organizations and prioritize which systems are most in need of replacement. But with a new administration taking over Jan. 20, Scott probably will not issue a final document and instead handoff the draft and any resulting comments to his successor.
Roger Baker, CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs from 2009-2013 and now an independent consultant, says the next Federal CIO will call the shots from here.
“Tony will leave it ready for the next administration to decide whether they want to continue or not,” he says. “It really has to be up to the next administration. Other than doing his successor a favor to get it moved along and ready, there’s not a lot Tony can do anymore.”
Alan Balutis, a former Commerce Department CIO now and now a director in Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group, agrees. The fundamental issues won’t change with the incoming administration, but there will be differences deep in the details, he says. “Modernization is not an issue like immigration or tax reform or defense authorization, where there has been contentious debate and party splits,” Balutis says. “You have both bicameral and bipartisan support.”
But for the program to succeed, the incoming administration must own the policy going forward. “You don’t usually get credit for implementing someone else’s ideas,” Balutis says. “You get credit for implementing your own ideas.”
Keys to Modernization Success
The presidential transition will see thousands of jobs vacated and changing hands in a matter of just a few months. Top officials have their plates full with campaign promises and major policy initiatives. IT Modernization is so deep in the weeds that it could be months before anyone knows who will succeed Scott or what approach that person might have to drive modernization plans going forward.
But Richard Spires, who was CIO at Homeland Security from 2009-2013 and now is chief executive officer at Learning Tree International said Scott is on the right track and his successor will likely follow his lead. Agencies need guidance on administration priorities in order to evaluate and prioritize their modernization and efficiency programs, Spires said, and just about anyone coming into the role would agree.
The key is ensuring that the baton is passed successfully so that momentum isn’t lost.
“It seems like initiatives do kind of die from one administration to the next because of the politics of things,” Spires says. “But it’s always been my view that IT should be a nonpolitical issue. I don’t think anybody would argue that you ought to have more effective and efficient government, and you ought to use IT to help you get there.”
With bipartisan support, he’s hopeful the IT bill will pass the Senate and provide some legislative impetus to keep the modernization issue alive through the transition – and some much-needed funding flexibility to cash-strapped agency CIOs. Although the bill does not include a specific appropriation for modernization, it would allow agencies to redirect funds from operations and maintenance into a working capital fund, giving leaders more time to decide how best to invest the money.
“Even if the bill isn’t funded, creating the ability for these working capital funds is still really valuable,” he says. “I’d love to see this thing pass and the next administration pick it up and leverage it.”
But money is only part of the challenge. “The easier part is getting funding,” Spires says. “The harder part is actually executing really well to deliver a modern system.” Basic infrastructure is complicated enough. “But once you start getting into functionality, the complexity can be mind boggling. IT is a tool – an indispensable tool – but not the end result.”
Making government more efficient and effective means pulling together program managers and agency leaders to focus on desired outcomes and define expected results. It may also involve human resources if jobs will be eliminated.
“It’s about business processes more than IT,” says Baker. “If government only changes the underlying systems and moves them from a 1980s implementation of a bad business process to a 2016 implementation of a bad business process, then that money will do no good.”
Consider Y2K, he said: “We all ended up with brand new desktops but they were still running the same software.” The same result repeats itself each time managers replace an underlying technology without updating the process it implements. “There’s an adage in the IT industry that no matter how great your computer power, you can’t make up for a bad algorithm,” Baker says. That holds true for business processes, too. A new system can be completely modern, but it’s only as good as the process that runs on top. So if that process is essentially the same as it was in 1950, nothing has really changed.
The problem, he says, boils down to this: “In the public sector, systems are built to fit what the government needs. But in the private sector, systems are built to fit what the customer needs.” The government, he argues, needs to think more about its customers, and agency leaders need to think long-term about change. The point to remember: “If you’re not making cultural change, you’re not making change.”
Looking for Leverage
For the next Federal CIO, the idea of long-term cultural change is a particular challenge. The office has only a small staff and minimal funding, notes Woody Hall, a former CIO at the Department of Energy, Customs and Border Protection, and General Dynamics Information Technology, so whoever has the job has limited tools at his or her disposal.
Scott’s message “is absolutely spot-on,” Hall says. But he struggles with the question of whether Scott or his successor can actually drive change.
“Execution is where you get stuck. You can make agencies produce reports, and if they don’t, you can embarrass them in the press or hold up money from Congress. But who is going to read all these reports and ensure that they’re real? … The governance process is what’s missing. Where do you have enough people who really understand the technology and what you have to do to program-manage one of these things and enough contextual knowledge on the mission to provide enough oversight to be sure this is just another box-checking exercise.”
Using cybersecurity as a lever is one way to drive change, Hall says. “A huge percentage of these legacy systems will fail,” he notes, and fear of embarrassment is “a huge motivator in Washington.” But embarrassment alone is not enough, he says.
Hall, Baker and Spires all favor a central revolving investment fund that would give the CIO office budget authority to solve problems. Scott’s approach to gathering information is a key first step. “Getting the library of enterprise roadmaps is the raw data,” Hall says. “Then, if you have some funding support to foster those projects and have some successes, you might make some progress. That’s worth trying.”
Without central funding, the job falls to individual agency budgets where other priorities will take precedence. Says Hall: “Somehow you have to figure out how to shine the light on IT and keep the pressure on. You can grease the skids if the next administration can figure out how to get Congress to create a modernization fund. But given the current governmental model, you probably have a better chance with collaboration than a mandate.”