Government has never lacked for big ideas. Getting them accomplished has been another story, although the nation’s interstate highway system, the Internet and landing men on the moon are among just a few examples of where the federal government has succeeded in doing amazing things.

One of the big–if not quite so lofty–ideas now being floated in planning discussions among senior IT leaders at the Office of Management and Budget, is a long term view towards developing a government-wide entity to supply the back office computing systems and core business services for federal agencies.

Everyone has huge expectations about mobility (and the Federal Mobility Strategy) but there’s almost no way realistically that a federal strategy can realistically deliver on those expectations.” – Rick Holgate

It’s certainly not a new idea. Centralizing business services dates back to the days when the General Services Administration and the Federal Telecommunications Service were conceived.
But it is an idea that makes more and more sense, suggests Rick Holgate, assistant director for science and technology and CIO at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.

Holgate also co-chairs the Federal Mobility Strategy Task Force, a group set up by Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel to explore how to improve productivity and reduce duplicative federal IT spending in government, in part by adopting mobile technology.

“Why not have a [single] federal back office?” Holgate proposed boldly during an industry forum on mobility in Washington yesterday, sponsored by AFFIRM and GITEC.

“That’s a big idea,” he said, “that we’ve got to start thinking about,” fully acknowledging that a raft of barriers, from archaic Congressional funding to deeply rooted cultural resistance, means “we won’t get there anytime soon.”

In the interim, “Why not have one HR system that [the Office of Personnel Management] is responsible for,” he asked, “or one financial management system run by [the Treasury Department]?”

Holgate reiterated the recurring mantra of the Federal CIO-and for that matter, VanRoekel’s predecessor, Vivek Kundra, and a numerous GAO reports-that there are simply too many redundant email, financial, HR and other commonly used business management systems inside federal departments, and across the Executive branch as whole.

Standardizing and centralizing them has long made economic sense. What’s changing is a fiscal reality where agencies are having to make painful choices; and the emerging sense that cloud and wireless technologies have matured to the point where agencies now see a means to leaping toward shared systems.

This new reality may sound like déjà vu to those who have followed-and shaped–the arc of technology in government.

Mark Forman, the first administrator for OMB’s Office of E-Government and IT, during the George W. Bush Administration and now co-founder of Government Transaction Service, sees this new willingness to think bigger about IT as a reflection of the commoditization of IT, and reminiscent of what happened to long haul communications in the 1990s.

“What’s happening with IT commoditization is that things like telecom and storage have merged with email messaging and internet standard protocols, as we’ve moved from analog to digital technologies,” he said.

“So, it is natural that central services will get aggregated and brokered–not supplied–by a central buying entity. This is not the Brooke’s Act delegation of procurement authority, but the 21st century version of FTS2000 which is a utility model for IT services that still works as more and more IT commoditizes into a service.”

The challenges of course, are just as familiar.

“As much as the Federal CIO would like to have centralized control over IT spending, he doesn’t have the authority, nor the budget,” Holgate said. “So today it requires (a substantial amount of) collaborative efforts” across dozens of agencies.

“Everyone has huge expectations about mobility (and the Federal Mobility Strategy) but there’s almost no way realistically that a federal strategy can realistically deliver on those expectations,” he said.

But there are a lot of models that can be adopted, he argued. He cited work around a mobile technology architecture at the Department of Homeland Security that could be shared, in a fashion similar to FedRAMP, a risk management approach where certifications for cloud computing technology approved at one agency can be shared with other agencies.

FedRAMP is a good example of ways to focus on 80-to-85% commonality (of IT) across government,” Holgate said.

“Getting agencies to recognize that is a big part of the battle,” he said.