Procurement is emerging as one of the most significant issues facing federal information technology leaders as the Obama administration begins its second term, a top ranking government IT official said this week.
More and more federal agencies are making the leap to cloud computing, adopting mobile technologies and developing APIs to share information. But agency IT leaders remain hampered from moving faster by contracting constraints that make it hard to make cross-agency buys, said Richard Spires, chief information officer for the Department of Homeland Security and vice chairman of the Federal CIO Council.
“I would hope in the second term in the Obama administration that we do work more closely with procurement teams…just as we’re working with shared services teams,” said Spires (pictured at left, above). “We need to work on shared contracts. It’s just so difficult to have each of us to go our own ways. We’re just too stretched,” he said.
Spires made his remarks at one of the first public forums on the direction of federal IT following the election.
But he was also aiming his remarks at fellow panelist, Deputy Federal Chief Information Officer Lisa Schlosser (pictured above, at right), who spoke on behalf of the White House Office of Management and Budget at the forum, which was held by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM) in Washington on Wednesday.
Spires suggested that federal agencies would actually benefit from more pressure from the administration to streamline IT acquisition.
Schlosser acknowledged more work needs to be done if the administration’s Digital Government Strategy is to succeed in getting agencies to continue to “innovate with less,” she said.
That included putting greater focus on strategic contracting, OMB’s IT Portfolio Stat program, and developing a security reference architecture, which Spires is helping to lead to help support mobile adoption across federal agencies.
Schlosser pointed to some of the administration’s more recent efforts in those areas, such as work currently underway to streamline and standardize requests for proposals, called the RFP-EZ project, as part of the Presidential Innovation Fellows initiative. The program is aimed at helping agencies move more quickly on smaller scale projects.
The administration’s regimen of IT portfolio reviews, to make failing and duplicative IT investments more transparent, will continue to be a central focus for OMB as the Obama administration moves into its next term, said Schlosser.
Spires remains a vocal proponent of portfolio reviews. But he is quick to stress the importance having the full commitment by senior agency leaders to support a functioning governance body to hold program leaders accountable if the reviews are to be effective.
The General Services Administration, which gained credit for being the first federal agency to successfully move its email system to a lower-cost cloud computing environment, is now one of many agencies in the midst of a wider, cross-agency IT portfolio review, according the GSA CIO, Casey Coleman, who also spoke at the forum (pictured center above.)
GSA, like most agencies, “had been more of a federated organization,” she said, with a variety of operating units inside the huge government procurement and property management agency defining and operating their own IT systems. That’s changing as senior agency officials are taking a more comprehensive view of IT investments across the entire agency.
She said GSA recently implemented “a lot of new process controls to understand what’s going on across the agency,” including a new tool installed within the past 30 days, supplied by Salesforce.com, that tracks all IT spending across the agency.
DHS, meanwhile, continues to “be very aggressive with our own set of enterprise cloud offerings,” said Spires, who announced that “in the last couple of weeks,” DHS reached the milestone of having “more than 100,000 emails users in the cloud.”
One positive development that has emerged from moving to a services-based approach to IT, said Spires, and also making acquisition easier, is the fact that the costs of turnkey IT services are much simpler to calculate.
With legacy systems, and layers of support, the costs for delivering even basic email services were “so diffused that it was very difficult to understand your true costs,” Spires said. Buying email services on a per-user basis makes those costs much more transparent.
But it’s also helping IT departments explain to department managers that if they want a certain level of capabilities, above what’s commonly required, “you’re going to have to pay for it. Maybe we (as IT leaders) need to do more of that,” Spires said.
Over the long run, “We know we really want to standardize as much as possible,” he said.