Tight budgets cannot be an excuse for lack of innovation. Rather, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel told the audience at the annual FOSE conference in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday that agencies have a prime opportunity to drive efforts to build a 21st century digital government.

I think we will see a catalyst effect by having FedRamp out there and driving this forward.” – Steven VanRoekel

Case in point: When the overall federal information technology budget reached a plateau in 2009-actually declining 0.004 percent after growing by 7 percent over the previous 10 years-the lack of fresh funding started to eat into the government’s ability to provide new services, he told the audience. The result: Agencies rooted out duplication and reduced costs.

“What I’m proud to say is that in the last three years on a flat or declining budget we’ve actually innovated a lot,” VanRoekel said in a morning keynote speech that kicked off the conference, which covers a range of federal IT topics from mobile government to defense innovations. “Rooting out duplication is the way we’re going to innovate with less…and pour [the savings] into new innovation and new service delivery and finding efficiencies.”

He noted that the Agriculture Department has consolidated its 21 email systems into one cloud-based system at a third of the cost.

“We need to think about government as a platform” for delivering better digital services to citizens,” VanRoekel said. “We need to drive this maniacally inside agencies to streamline this stuff, to create that investment capital for us to continue to innovate.”

Data center consolidation and the migration to cloud computing will also propel efficiencies and eliminate duplication in government, he said.

“We have roughly about 3,000 data centers in the federal portfolio,” he said. “Our goal is to take that down by about 40 percent. Agencies are hard at work right now doing the consolidation and optimization.”

The shift to the cloud is also a “huge opportunity” to realize more savings. The federal “cloud first” initiative will get a big boost in December, when the government rolls its initial version of the FedRamp program, a framework designed to help agencies acquire cloud services in a standardized way.

“I think we will see a catalyst effect by having FedRamp out there and driving this forward,” VanRoekel said.

Other innovation efforts must focus on using technology to improve interaction between government and citizens and business and strengthening cybersecurity, he added.

Looking ahead, government needs to build a “culture of innovation,” pushed by public demand for more Web-based services, government employees bringing a “lean start-up mentality” to government, and the private sector producing new products and services to help “advance the ball” toward true digital government, VanRoekel said.