Oct 27 2011

Finding Opportunity in Tough Times

Shrinking budgets make for greater IT challenges but also open new doors.

Agencies throughout the government face significant budget cuts. One word that may seem unlikely to come up in a discussion of the financial crunch is “exciting,” but that’s just the word Homeland Security Department CIO Richard Spires chose to describe the situation.

“Even though it’s a really tight budget time, I think there’s a lot of opportunity with that,” Spires told hundreds of federal IT workers and contractors at the Executive Leadership Conference in Williamsburg, Va.

Dealing with a shrinking budget can spur IT workers to explore innovations and come up with new — and better — ways of doing things, he said.

For example, he described a recent procurement DHS completed for “workplace as a service.”

“It’s a bundled service,” he said. “We are looking at virtual desktop infrastructure, mobile devices and smartphones. We are bundling these services, and they will all sit in our private cloud.”

The deal will yield “significantly lower” costs for desktops at Homeland Security, Spires said, and will illustrate one of the major benefits possible through cloud computing.

“When it comes to commodity IT, I just want to buy an SLA [service level agreement], so I can focus on providing services to my customers,” he said.

Dave Wennergren, assistant deputy chief management officer for the Defense Department, who spoke with Spires and Lisa Schlosser, deputy administrator for e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, said tight budgets have changed the nature of federal IT.

Wennergren warned that rather than to look for new opportunities, many people respond to financial pressure by returning to habits that have worked for them in the past, even if they may not work anymore. “We just love the way we have been doing things,” he said.

But to succeed, agencies must break the models of the past and devise better ways of doing business, such as using open architecture and modular delivery of services. “While we’re making big cuts, we still have to work on these small improvements,” Wennergren said.

As an example of a break from past conventions, he cited a project in which DOD and the Veterans Affairs Department are working together to establish electronic health records that will last from the time someone enlists in military service through all his dealings with VA. Such efforts are more than a way to save money; improving accuracy and speeding the delivery of health information can save lives, he noted.

Cooperation will be a major part of successfully addressing budget constraints, Spires said. As agencies innovate to deal with the tighter flow of cash, they must share their best practices with others. “I really do believe that is so key to success for the federal government IT community,” he said.

The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), which is establishing a common security risk model that can serve as a baseline for cloud providers, is one example of how agencies can share lessons they learn in implementing the cloud. Breaking down barriers between agencies and building trust will be a key factor in successfully sharing best practices and overcoming budgetary challenges, Spires said.

Wennergren echoed that sentiment, spelling out how important trust is: “We pay a huge cost in dollars and time every time we enter a low-trust relationship. Because it takes longer to get things done.”