The Department of Health and Human Services has the third-largest budget of all Cabinet agencies, with a fiscal year 2019 appropriation of $90.5 billion. It also contains 11 operating divisions, each of which has multiple components; the OpDivs often work autonomously and not always in tandem. Todd Simpson, the former CIO at the Food and Drug Administration, plans as HHS’ inaugural chief product officer to leverage the agency’s size into more efficiencies and increased savings as it modernizes. FedTech spoke with him about his evolving role.
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FEDTECH: Why does HHS need a chief product officer?
SIMPSON: My job is to provide platforms, shared services, vendor management and basically tier-three product development and support. The emergence of the cloud and the new technologies related to artificial intelligence and Big Data analytics, that’s all in my wheelhouse. If someone has a project that automates a report that the assistant secretary uses, and by doing so we can save 50 man-hours per month, that’s where we provide a solution.
I’ve had customers say, “Can you do something to help me understand the data about procurement?” And in fact, we’re getting ready to launch a solution. I’m trying to build this AI platform where we’re going to look at all this administrative data, for example, and be able to do Big Data analytics on it.
FEDTECH: Analyzing Big Data is common in HHS’ research agencies. How will that work for administrative data?
SIMPSON: Here’s an example: We have a general department management fund with $200 million, and about 80 percent of that goes to salaries. In the office of the CIO alone, there are 80 vacancies. The people in charge want to understand how that slippage is being used — it’s money that’s sitting on the bench that should be going to pay salaries. What we’re giving to our customers is the ability to see the linkage between the money that people are saving or hoarding, and when they’re spending it. We’re basically looking at trends that are occurring between the data. We’ve never looked at the HR data or the procurement data as a data set before.
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FEDTECH: What are some of the other projects on the table?
SIMPSON: We’re journey-mapping a pathway for license consolidation, how we can upgrade to a common infrastructure, and achieve that agencywide platform look and feel without being disruptive to our operating division friends.
At the same time, we’re trying to get better pricing. We try to set up vehicles with a lower price point to achieve economies of scale around blanket purchase agreements. This whole notion of moving people into our swim lane and leveraging a shared-services platform — it’s a crawl, walk, run kind of thing. We’re in the crawl stage right now.
FEDTECH: Where have you seen success?
SIMPSON: Where we are getting direct value right now is in contract reuse and in license reuse. When we have an opportunity to reuse a license after someone leaves a position, we do that before we buy a new one. We’ve been able to do that at HHS, in the office of the secretary. We want to expand that out to the operating divisions.
Then, if we have existing contract vehicles out there, we’re loading on those, creating task orders off existing contracts instead of writing that new contract. We’re at the very beginning of this too, and we’re creating the methodology by which we can estimate what the level of effort is every time we have to move into a new contract. If we can avoid that, it’s a cost avoidance.
FEDTECH: How are the operating divisions reacting?
SIMPSON: What I’ve learned is that to become a shared-services provider, it’s a big ravine that I’m trying to jump, and I feel like Evel Knievel. Am I really going to make it over that ramp?
We’re trying to look at those use cases that make the most sense. We’re looking at a Section 508 compliance use case. Of course, we have email as a use case. In talking with Ed Simcox [CTO and acting CIO], he’s really pushing and asking, “Why aren’t we getting more out of the Microsoft contract?” We own OneDrive, for example, but we don’t have a strategy as a department pointing us toward OneDrive. We own unlimited storage in the cloud. We could literally move all of our data there if we set a strategy, a vector toward that.
I think if you’re spending money on IT, there should be alignment. It shouldn’t matter what the threshold is, or how much you’re spending.
FEDTECH: What kind of technology do you need in order to make all of this happen for the department?
SIMPSON: A lot of the technology is present, it’s out there, and that’s where this notion of brokerage comes into play. We look at the licenses, or we look at the contracts, or we look at the infrastructure.
The reality is when HHS mandated, for example, that we would all move email to the cloud, look what happened: Everybody moved their email to the cloud.
I absolutely believe that the department would achieve more success in the realm of the common operating environment and the shared-services environment if it were mandated. I also believe there would be greater savings.
But if we do that, then we really have to listen to our customers. We have to make sure that tool really has all the requirements baked into it that industry insists on. Like anything in government, it’s going to take time.