Apr 21 2015

Q&A: FEMA CIO Talks About the Power of Mobile

Adrian Gardner discusses how changes to the agency’s IT structure are helping everyone involved in disaster situations, from survivors to first responders.

Mobile technology can shorten commute times and offer greater efficiencies for remote employees, but mobility proves its true value in emergency situations.

A 20-year government technology veteran, Adrian Gardner served as the CIO at the National Weather Service and NASA’s Goddard Space Center before joining FEMA in the same role in 2013. During his time at the agency, Gardner has pushed FEMA to decentralize its IT structure to better meet mission needs, and has emphasized mobile technology as a way to speed assistance to disaster survivors. Gardner recently spoke to FedTech Managing Editor David Stegon about those efforts.

FEDTECH: What steps have you taken to improve the technology available to first responders and others working in emergency environments?

Gardner: We’ve made a big push to help private sector partners understand how FEMA’s IT impacts our country and the agency’s capability to support our citizens and first responders. We want to build strong and productive partnerships with the private sector, but our partners must know and understand our mission and ethos.

Our strategy focuses on getting mobile technologies into the hands of those at the end of the spear. They interface directly with survivors. We want to ensure they have the tools to quickly get information and data incorporated into devices and transmitted, as well as get appropriate funds and services out to the survivors and first responders. As we work with our public and private sector partners to provide ubiquitous access to information and technology, our citizen’s ability to respond to and survive disasters will dramatically improve.

From an architecture standpoint, we want to examine opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our grants systems — from the submission of a grant application to closure — to help those in disaster areas.

FEDTECH: How have FEMA’s technology operations become more efficient?

Gardner: We have a framework and strategy based on centralized governance and decentralized execution. FEMA has 10 regions that work with survivors, so we needed a decentralized technology model to work along with that.

In the first year, we focused on stabilizing the security of the environment, going to every geographical location that flies the FEMA flag and conducting a complete security assessment of the IT that was resident at both the regional offices and agency headquarters. In addition to that, we wrote a business impact assessment business case for each one of the systems we authorize, which helped us reduce duplication and gain efficiencies.

FEDTECH: How many of FEMA’s resources or services are cloud-based?

Gardner: We have a couple of applications in the cloud, but plan to invest more, while also looking at fixed facilities. One of the questions you probably have is, “Why would you still need a fixed facility?” If you look at the capabilities FEMA provides, it covers a range of information from very sensitive to very open. There are some things FEMA executes today that probably are inappropriate to migrate to the cloud, but there are a number of other projects that could be optimized.

Today, we have migrated capabilities such as our Deployment Tracking System, which uses a cloud platform to track the FEMA reservists’ readiness when called to respond to, and recover from, an emergency.

FEDTECH: How mobile is FEMA’s workforce right now?

Gardner: We are leveraging mobile platforms heavily. We are in the middle of a Workplace Transformation Project here at headquarters, where we are going from seven facilities down to just two in the Washington, D.C., area. The expectation is that our workforce will have the ability to telework at least 60 percent of the time. We are reconfiguring our facilities and redesigning our systems to conform to our mobile strategy.

There is a big push now on really making our workforce expeditionary, where our mobile platforms and capabilities will be used to maximize the speed, efficiency, accessibility and ease with which everyone can use FEMA information and data.

FEDTECH: Are you able to share some of your findings from FEMA’s most recent security review?

Gardner: I am responsible for managing the security posture of a decentralized IT environment. Therefore, one of the big challenges is ensuring that our systems are set up from beginning to end to support survivors and first responders in a secure manner. In the past, we have built systems that are easy for headquarters to manage, but we are now focused on human-centered design, with a goal of becoming survivor-centric. Our goal is to engage the whole community in the design of our systems and applications. We believe that if we do that in our development, it will enhance our capability to meet or exceed expectations.

John Davis

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