May 15 2009

Stimulating Innovation

To make a quantum leap forward, the recovery effort needs a tech launching pad: a modernized IT infrastructure.

What seems to be wave after wave of negative economic and business news has severely shaken the confidence of the nations of the world. The financial industry is in peril, and the value of many large corporate entities has plummeted — some have skittered into bankruptcy, others are teetering toward it.

In response, governments have stepped in with capital infusions, loans and spending programs. In the United States, these programs are staggering in size, worth trillions of dollars. Through one such program — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the government hopes to stimulate the economy and spur an economic upturn. But given the size and severity of the global recession (on top of global credit worthiness and market concerns), several economic prognosticators predict that the Obama administration will be forced to inject funds in addition to the $785 billion already committed to the recovery.

This leads to a Keystone Beer moment: Wouldn’t it be great if we could invest a portion of the next round of stimulus spending in a manner that generated jobs and produced a clear economic benefit — and provided an IT capability to jump-start government transformation? It’s possible but would require significant leadership from all stakeholders — the executive branch, the legislative branch and industry — as well as buy-in from an informed citizenry. Consider this a call to action.

Why Is Now the Time to Act?

Congress directed the funding appropriated for the Recovery Act to many needs and locations, as should be the case. But its primary purpose is to drive employment and kick-start the economy from the local level up. Various reports from those who have studied the federal IT budget estimate the Recovery Act to include $60 billion to $70 billion for federal IT spending, and a similar amount at state and local levels embedded in various grant programs. There should be no argument that significant IT funding should be included in any programs focused on economic recovery, because IT is a generator of economic growth and production. And while we all hope the benefits of this IT funding will be swiftly achieved, the total product of the IT benefits will be diffused, because the investments are spread in many directions.

Photo: Elizabeth Hinshaw
“A modernized IT infrastructure would improve
the interoperability of government IT and provide
the IT platform required to further empower government through technology innovation.”

— Paul Wohlleben

As the government considers the strategy for future stimulus funding, a different approach should be considered. Let’s make a significant coordinated investment in federal IT that will address the stimulus requirement but at the same time provide the platform for IT to enable the type of transparent, open, collaborative government that the Obama administration has espoused.

Why is now the time to act? First, it certainly appears that the combination of recession, lost economic value and problems in the credit markets will delay economic recovery and require more government action and investment. Second, the new federal CIO has a history of tackling big issues, and by past experience seems to bring a willingness to undertake large and vexing challenges. And third, a strong business case can be crafted for a coordinated IT investment that will address both the stimulus requirement and provide leverage to IT.

What Big Issue Should Be Addressed, and Why?

The opportunity that quickly comes to mind is to create a common architecture for federal IT and centralize provisioning of services and protection of information assets. Stated simply, let’s replace the federal IT infrastructure.

I think the “why” is driven by the scope of benefits that would accrue. First, a modernized IT infrastructure, architected appropriately, would be much easier and less costly to secure. IT security has been the top priority of CIOs for quite a while, and yet, because of the evolving nature of the threats, agencies can’t seem to improve the overall protection of IT information and assets. A modernized infrastructure would provide a quantum leap forward, making real improvement possible.

Second, a modernized IT infrastructure would consist of components that cost less, last longer and require less labor to operate and maintain. The total cost of ownership would be reduced.

Third, a modernized IT infrastructure would produce a significantly smaller carbon footprint. It would use less space and less energy and require less-frequent hardware upgrades and fewer people to operate it. All of these attributes would provide positive contributions to environmental goals. Green IT would be the result.

Fourth, a modernized IT infrastructure would improve the interoperability of government IT and provide the IT platform required to further empower government through technology innovation and enable the accomplishment of the administration’s goals of a transparent and open government.

What are your thoughts on this proposal? Is it the right one? Are we, collectively, capable of pulling it off?