This issue of FedTech mailed on Feb. 7. It's a day that the production team seared into the mind of every editor, writer and designer at the magazine many months ago. It's also an anniversary date for Lisa Schlosser; she became the CIO for the Housing and Urban Development Department on the same date last year.
And what a year it's been for Schlosser. Although she's spent her entire career in information technology, starting off as an intelligence officer in the Army and working as a security professional at Ernst & Young, Schlosser has faced a number of challenges at HUD that tested her management mettle, namely closing the gap between the IT haves and have-nots, reshaping the enterprise architecture and getting HUD out of the oversight doghouse.
Over the past few years, HUD has spent ample time in the hot seat, as critics at the Office of Management and Budget charged that too many projects were at risk and demanded more oversight. In 2004, OMB put HUD on its watch list when the department failed to attain security certification and accreditation for all of its systems.
By all accounts, Schlosser got off to a good start by improving HUD's rating on President's Management Agenda initiatives and addressing key performance management concerns. Then Hurricane Katrina hit and spawned a new set of priorities for Schlosser and her IT team. FedTech Editor in Chief Lee Copeland spoke with Schlosser about what's working, what's not and what's next.
FedTech: Looking back, what surprised you the most about coming to HUD?
Schlosser: You never know the state of an organization or what kind of support you'll get once you come onboard. I was pleasantly surprised with the executive and business leaders. The business executives called me to come and speak with them right away. You don't have to sell yourself here and sell technology because the business leaders are looking for technology solutions to help solve their business problems. From the secretary on down, people at HUD embrace technology.
FedTech: What were some of your biggest accomplishments during your first year at HUD?
Schlosser: After about a year on the job, my biggest observation has been that HUD has done some pretty cool things. We were just notified that we moved to green on our PMA e-government status. A year ago, we were red.
Our security certification and accreditation was not complete. We also had not implemented an earned value management system to better manage our key business and technology investments. Those were the two things that we had to fix in the past year. We've completed 100 percent of the accreditation of our systems and put an EVM in process to keep all projects within the budgeted costs.
FedTech: You've said before that a key function of the CIO's office is to expand e-government services to meet mission goals. Are issues remaining that relate to bridging the performance gap when you deploy new programs with a technical component?
Schlosser: The performance aspect of our programs is critically important. Theoretically, you can be within cost and on schedule and still produce a program that people are not happy with. We don't want to just develop a computer system to develop a computer system. Our focus needs to be on the business gap or need.
FedTech: Can you give me an example of making the business gap your primary focus and not the technology?
Schlosser: One example of that is that HUD has a big business program involving Section 8 vouchers to help low- and middle-income families with rent. In the past, we did tracking and verification of individual income manually or through disparate systems, which were hooked up to states' systems. Instead of creating our own database, we connected to an existing database with the Health and Human Services Department.
We were struggling with the income verification process. We had to go out and retrieve the information and were connected to multiple state databases, each with a different way of capturing data and each with a different quality of data. It was inefficient. But HHS has great quality-control checks. By just building one interface to HHS, we were able to eliminate all the state interfaces. As a result, we were able to improve our access to the data using technology, and we're using existing systems instead of building a new system. We've cut improper payments by over 57 percent and cut processing costs.
FedTech: That's part of the reuse mantra?
Schlosser: Absolutely. I tell my people, "Go find out what's out there before building something." In a generic way that is a way that government and CIOs operated in past: "Let me look at my agency requirements and go build something to meet that need." Now, we're saying, "Let's see who else is doing this first."
One strategic goal of ours is to always buy an existing solution. We build as the exception, or at least build the capability as part of a service-oriented architecture where the infrastructure is consistent and open. We always prefer commercial, off-the-shelf software on top of an existing infrastructure.
I tell my team: "Don't be afraid to change a business practice to accommodate a best practice. Let's not just customize the technology to fit an existing business practice. Let's look and see if there is a way to improve the way we do business."
I believe technology can help drive better business innovations. I don't view technology as an administrative function in the department anymore. At HUD, the CIO reports directly to the secretary; it's not a second-tier department. Technology is now one of our core strategic objectives at HUD.
FedTech: How did HUD adapt its services in the aftermath of Katrina?
Schlosser: HUD's primary objective was to be a support organization to the Federal Emergency Management Agency during that incident, and HUD's role as part of the support team was to assess the initial damage to housing units in the affected areas.
We had to send out strike teams and give everyone who was deployed a wireless communications kit. We gave everyone a laptop — or a BlackBerry — with a wireless card and a connection account. That really was very effective in the first week or two of the disaster because our teams could communicate in real time with HUD and get access to HUD's applications.
FedTech: HUD has a long history of outsourcing its enterprise systems work. What's your take on outsourcing and the growing trend to outsource in the federal government?
Schlosser: There has to be a balance between inherently government functions that cannot be outsourced, such as project management, security oversight and contract oversight, as well as business systems planning. Those four functions cannot be outsourced because they are inherently government functions. But pulling cable and installing a computer aren't best done by the government. Should you worry about the outsourcing work done on phone services? You don't build your own in-house phone service; it's just not cost-effective. That needs to be outsourced because it's cheaper and more effective to outsource it than to do it inside government.
FedTech: What is something you'd like to improve about the way HUD does business?
Schlosser: I would like to see more flexibility in the contracting process. The contracting process still takes a lot of time across the federal government, and we all have an obligation to find a way to streamline that process while still ensuring that there's ample competition.