William Vajda

Education Department CIO
Photo: Gary Landsman

“For me, information security is job one, period. It should be as ubiquitous as breathing.” That’s a core belief that William Vajda, CIO of the Education Department, says he lives every day.

But he also views “CIO” as his formal job title. His real job, Vajda says, is “problem solver.”

Now in his second year at Education, Vajda — in addition to managing information security — is driving results for a lengthy agenda and says he is realizing success from early implementation of his organization’s strategic goals. Vajda also is co-chairman of the CIO Council’s Best Practices Committee, which serves as the council’s focal point for Government 2.0 social-networking systems and Web 2.0 initiatives.

FedTech Editor in Chief Lee Copeland spoke with Vajda about his hopes, goals, programs in progress and — yes — his worst nightmare.

FedTech: Can you tell us about your responsibilities at Education and some of the projects that are most important to you?

Vajda: The role of the CIO is to be a problem solver. The senior leadership at the department is absolutely committed to improving IT services and capabilities so that we can drive performance and cost efficiency in our infrastructure, as well as deliver improved customer-service experiences for citizens and for our partners in government, academia and industry.

Although the CIO role comes with a lot of statutory definitions that prescribe what I am responsible for, the expectations aren’t limited to being the director of information resources management — the prototypical IT director sitting in the back office — but rather for me to facilitate business strategy through the prudent application of information technology.

I serve as that point in the organization where technology requirements and business requirements come together. My job is to identify and deliver solutions that provide best value to the mission of the department.

FedTech: We’ve heard a lot about market-based government. Are you involved in that?

Vajda: Within the Office of the CIO, we want to consolidate similar business requirements that cut across all areas of the department at an enterprise level and leverage that architecture to improve investment decisions. For example, we want to make sure that we aren’t buying 26 copies of the same software license, but we’re buying one enterprise copy and making it available as a service for everyone in the department. This is a fundamental goal that permeates all other goals.

In addition, we’re continuing to strongly invest in enterprise architecture. We’ll continue to implement the Federal Enterprise Architecture and, more specifically, the department’s business-segment architectures so we can use them as a road map for subsequent solution planning in the enterprise. We’ve already linked all these efforts through our IT governance and investment processes, so we hope to continue the momentum and use these processes to rapidly identify similar requirements for support across the entire department.

FedTech: We know that security has been one of your major concerns. Can you tell us something about what you’re doing in that area?

Vajda: We intend to improve Education’s information and data security and implement new oversight capabilities. Information security is job one. This comes from my deeply rooted belief as a private citizen, as well as the expectations set forth by the laws of the American people. I’m sure folks expect absolutely solid stewardship for the data they entrust to our care in this department.

We’ve implemented a lot of interesting capabilities to ensure that we meet the American public’s expectations, and we’ve partnered with a number of organizations in the federal government and industry to ensure that we implement solid oversight that’s consistent with federal law, all policies and regulations.

FedTech: What’s your worst IT nightmare, the sort of thing that keeps you up at night, and what are you doing to ensure it won’t happen?

Vajda: I live my life by a basic operating assumption: If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong, and at the worst time, under the worst circumstances. And, when it finally does go wrong, of course, particularly as a CIO with IT responsibilities, it’ll be my fault, and I’m going to be held fully accountable for it.


Photo: Gary Landsman
"When you're dealing with technology, something unexpected is going to happen. … Worrying about something that's inevitable is pointless. … I'd much rather figure out in advance how to take action to mitigate an associated risk or at least start planning for whatever depth of recovery can be anticipated."

Inevitably, when you’re dealing with technology, something unexpected is going to happen, or something unexpected is going to go wrong. It’s 100 percent probable; there’s no perfect system out there. Beyond that, as the CIO, I already know I’m going to be held responsible. I also know that every time it’s happened, we’ve been able to figure out how to move forward, even though fixing problems comes at some cost, be it funding, time or urgency.

So for me, worrying about something that’s inevitable is pointless — a waste of time. I’d much rather figure out in advance how to take action to mitigate an associated risk or at least start planning for whatever depth of recovery can be anticipated. So I don’t worry about stuff going wrong; I count on it going wrong! Just don’t ask me to program the clock function on the VCR.

FedTech: Are there any new best-practice initiatives coming out of the Best Practices Committee?

Vajda: We’ve got a lot of interesting stuff under way, but there’s probably nothing more interesting or higher priority at this time than the partnership we’ve established through the Office of Management and Budget that we’re describing as Government 2.0.

The focus of this area is to really start getting our arms around technical, organizational and cultural issues that are brought on by the advent of some of the new technologies in the area of social networking. To do that, we’re partnering with New Paradigm, which was founded by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, co-authors of the book Wikinomics. New Paradigm has become nGenera (www.ngenera.com).

We’re studying what governments already have accomplished and what we can further do to use these social-networking tools in the workplace. We’re anticipating that there’s going to be a much broader demand for these tools and the type of interaction they facilitate between citizens and their government, within and between citizen organizations, and between government and business.

FedTech: Are you doing some specific things with social networking in the department?

Vajda: Senior leadership recognizes the potential of the social-networking tools to provide a tremendous promise for how we deliver our mission. We’ve got a couple of examples that I want to share.

One example is what we call School 2.0 (www.school2-0.org). In a nutshell, we need to focus on preparing our educational system to deliver the requirements of the 21st century. The School 2.0 e-toolkit is designed to facilitate that dialogue, to help schools, school districts and communities develop a common educational vision for the future and to explore that vision through social technologies.

We chose the name School 2.0 to encourage discussion about the next generation of schools that can be supported by integrated technology infrastructures that encompass all of the different elements that are out there. We hope that by encouraging discussion of community-based, next-generation schools, communities will be inspired to think creatively about their teaching methods, learning and management, and will explore ways to leverage technology to meet those goals.

The other example is College.gov, which Undersecretary of Education Sara Martinez Tucker recently announced at the University of Denver. It’s our initiative to connect American students on their path to college. It’ll follow the new social-networking capabilities. Sara has begun a blog to get engaged with students to keep the discussion open until we can get our site up fully, and you can leave comments on her blog, at www.collegeconversations.wordpress.com.

So between School 2.0 and College.gov, we see a lot of promise for these tools. We’re hopeful that as we gain more experience with them, we can provide even newer and more interesting functionalities that deliver on the expectations that the American people have laid out before us.

FedTech: I'd love to hear more about Educate because I'm sure that the contract is pretty much at the top of your list of priorities right now.

Vajda: That's right. As you know, we are committed to providing efficient and cost-effective IT services within the department. Specifically, we want to focus on performance-based solutions, especially those that give us the best value. The good news is that these aren't new ideas. The department, prior to my tenure, had a long history of partnering with industry in a lot of different ways to leverage the cutting-edge expertise that it provides. As a result, the department has led the federal government in using innovative, performance-based cost solutions - both in how we manage our basic infrastructure and how the different programs have implemented technology to get the job done.

We've reviewed this strategy within the Office of the CIO and decided to focus on our core business areas. Overall, this leads to an approach that mitigates many of the nonmission delivery risks, and as a result, we decided to go ahead and modify our approach to the way we provision IT services. Educate embodies the use of performance-based service solutions.

We're small enough that it matters how much bandwidth we dedicate to figuring out who's responsible for what to get a job done. The type of coordination you normally see in larger bureaucracies becomes a challenge for a department the size of Education if you get too many people engaged. By going to a contractor-owned, contractor-operated model, what we're really doing is focusing on the service outcome.

The Educate vendor must conform to all relevant government laws, regulations and standards, and Office of Management and Budget guidance and policies, and everything else. But for the technical issues, we leave the choices up to our vendor partner. All that our departmental customers are really interested in at the end of the day is that the phones are always on, that e-mail is always available and, that in the event of a disaster, operations are consistently available. That's a different way of looking at things. It frees the government up to really focus on what additional value the IT organization can provide through technology, as opposed to provisioning the technology.

FedTech: Under the previous two, you still owned the equipment, even though you were outsourcing support to contractors, correct?

Vajda: Right, which made it kind of challenging to manage the risk. We're small enough where it matters how much bandwidth you're dedicating to figuring out who's responsible, for what, to get the job done. The type of coordination you normally see in larger bureaucracies becomes a challenge for a department the size of Education if you get too many people engaged.

By going to a contractor-owned, contractor-operated model, what we're really doing is paying for the outcome. We're saying they have to conform to all the relevant government laws and regulations and standards and policies and everything else. We really don't care, and we don't want to constrain you with our thinking on that. All we're really interested in at the end of the day is that the phones are always on, that the e-mail is always available and, that in the event of a disaster, operations consistently are maintained. That's a different way of looking at it. It frees the government up to really focus on what you do with the technology, as opposed to provisioning the technology. For me, that's the rationale for Educate.

To visit the Education CIO Web site, go to www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocio.

Dec 31 2009