Dec 14 2020

Q&A: Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat on the Future of IT Modernization

How can the federal government take lessons learned during the pandemic and apply them across the enterprise to modernize?

The federal government is about to go through a major shift, with a new administration coming in at the end of January, bringing with it a new set of priorities and policies. That will no doubt affect government IT modernization efforts.

Some aspects of the government’s efforts to modernize its technology will outlast President Donald Trump’s administration, such as the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence program, which was recently codified into law.

Various government agencies will also likely be looking for ways they can make elements of their expanded telework initiatives permanent as the coronavirus pandemic continues and as agency IT leaders consider the future work landscape.

FedTech recently spoke with Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat about all of this, including how agencies have responded during the pandemic and what the future of IT modernization looks like.

FEDTECH: How have agencies’ investments in cloud technologies over the past few years paid off during the pandemic?

Roat: Cloud investments really paid off. The federal government started out with Cloud First and then the Cloud Smart strategy. Over the past several years, as agencies have been rationalizing their application portfolio, they’ve been moving to the cloud, and people have been teleworking throughout the federal government. Not to the extent, of course, that we’re doing now, but the CIOs had the infrastructure in place so that the federal government could just flip over to telework. If you think about it, that happened really, really seamlessly. The capabilities that the cloud gave — the flexibility, the scalability, all of those things — allowed for the federal government just to flip over.

Most everybody has laptops. Desktops, you don’t see those much anymore, but with laptops you can work from anywhere. It was a matter of expanding the capabilities for the federal employees, for logins, the virtual private networks — there’s been a ton of work around security to support remote work.

The Trusted Internet Connections program is just the workaround security, so people can work from home and they can work securely.

It’s interesting that even as the federal government flipped over to telework pretty seamlessly, it allowed the CIOs and the government to really focus on those citizen-facing services and use the cloud to be able to do that. In many instances, it was a matter of scaling, and you saw things like the VA, which flipped over to telemedicine, the work that HHS did with the states on data, things like that.

The response to the pandemic really focused not just on employees teleworking but really focused on mission continuity and the delivery of those public-facing services. It allowed the CIOs to really focus on the mission with the CARES Act and all the requirements that were coming out of it.

VIDEO: What lessons did federal IT leaders learn from the shift to remote work?

FEDTECH: I think it’s fair to say there were some growing pains in terms of scaling up IT and cloud resources. How will things get better based on lessons learned?

Roat: What’s next? There’s plenty of opportunities. The CIO Council came together, they identified some areas of focus. The change and what we’re doing, it really gives us some opportunities to innovate and challenge some of the norms, the status quos that we’ve had. Through the pandemic, you saw how quickly we could get bureaucracy out of the way. We were able to innovate and we were able to roll out solutions very fast. We had a lot of momentum. I think the opportunity that presents itself is how we maintain that momentum where acquisition, the CXOs across organizations, really came together to meet the mission space. Maintaining that momentum is one of the big things that we really should strive for to get some of that bureaucracy out of the way.

Maria Roat
Through the pandemic, you saw how quickly we could get bureaucracy out of the way. We were able to innovate and we were able to roll out solutions very fast.”

Maria Roat Deputy Federal CIO

In addition, you saw data being shared across the federal government. The Federal Data Strategy has been building the foundation for data practices across the federal government. We’re moving into year two on the Federal Data Strategy for the action plans, collectively building that maturity. You saw data sharing across agencies like we hadn’t seen before. You also saw, and I’ll go back to HHS again, their interaction with the states and the medical facilities in those states and how they were tracking the pandemic. How do we take all those lessons learned and really bring that together, to drive that innovation and that change and keep things moving overall across the federal government? To your question, I kind of look at it as “what’s next?” Maintain that momentum, continue to get the bureaucracy out of the way. The CIOs know what to do. They know how to execute, they can innovate and they can really drive. We saw that this year. I really think that the data maturity, continuing to focus on cybersecurity and continuing to push are things that really give us a lot of opportunity to move.

FEDTECH: Suzette Kent would often talk about her view of IT modernization as a multiyear, multiadministration process. Do you agree with that assessment? How is that being implemented right now?

Roat: I absolutely agree with that. Digital transformation is not a one-off activity. We, as a federal government, have to put in place sustained long-term modernization and long-term investments to be able to continue to grow. Technology does not stand still. CIOs are continuing to push technology innovation and, at the same time, they’re dealing with these older legacy systems that take many years to modernize. Part of the Cloud Smart strategy is application rationalization. Even as CIOs are rationalizing their application portfolios, they have to be realistic in an environment with one-year funding in cycles that include continuing resolutions. Even as you’re trying to modernize your legacy system in a one-year funding environment, you have to pay for that legacy system and you have to pay for the new investment until you’re able to shut down that older system and migrate to something newer.

This makes the modernization path really difficult, and this is where the long-term, sustained, multiyear funding comes in. You’ve got the Modernizing Government Technology Act that allows for the Technology Modernization Fund board. The TMF as well as IT working capital funds can be used to finance and undertake those multiyear modernization projects. I think agencies sometimes are a little bit apprehensive because they can start a modernization project, and if the funding isn’t sustained year over year and they don’t know that those dollars are going to be there in year two, how far can they get in one year? Especially where these are big systems that have been around a while, and even if you wanted to decouple those and build out microservices in their place, that is still going to take time.

READ MORE: Find out how agencies have been using the Technology Modernization Fund.

FEDTECH: How do you see programs like the GSA’s Centers of Excellence and QSMOs around shared services continuing?

Roat: The Centers of Excellence really drive a lot of really good practices across the federal government. I think the QSMOs, the quality service management offices for shared services, for the HR systems, for finance, for grants, as well as SOC as a Service, those are enterprisewide capabilities for the federal government.

The vision with the President’s Management Agenda is to drive these services and consolidate. When you look at payroll and timekeeping, we have 129 timekeeping systems across the federal government. Why do we need that many? And, really, these initiatives being put in place look at the federal government and take into account the federal government as an enterprise, not all these individual silos.

If we have 2.1 million people, this is a big enterprise, but how do we act as an enterprise and start bringing those systems together? And I think the QSMOs really drive a lot of those efficiencies in government.

Then, those Centers of Excellence bringing in best practices — what worked at one agency, could they bring it to another agency? — sharing those lessons learned across the board. Not just with the CIOs, but whether it’s digital acquisition or other practices across the federal government. Really bringing those shared services together could be beneficial for enterprisewide modernization in the federal government.

EXPLORE: How does the Federal Data Strategy empower chief data officers?

FEDTECH: How does the CIO Council go about prioritizing those kinds of governmentwide initiatives, such as expanded use of microservices? Where do you start? There’s just so much to do.

Roat: You’re right. There is a lot, and I’ll give a shout out to the CIO Council. All of the CIOs are terrific across the federal government. When you start talking about these opportunities for governmentwide modernization — I mentioned earlier the Federal Data Strategy — you have agencies doing a ton of work with data. Look at NOAA, for example, and what they’re doing around weather and drones and tracking and predicting hurricanes’ paths. That’s just one example. I think there’s varying levels of maturity across the federal government, and I know the Federal Data Strategy wanted us to look at the maturity of data and start bringing in some of those enterprise capabilities to the federal government. When I talk about data and the CIO Council sponsoring data science programs, there’s one underway right now building on maturity for the federal government and where we need to direct our efforts.

Maria Roat
We, as a federal government, have to put in place sustained long-term modernization and long-term investments to be able to continue to grow.”

Maria Roat Deputy Federal CIO

We know that we need more data scientists in the federal government. The CIO Council with the CDO Council has made an investment in training for more than 60 people across the federal government to get trained in data science. The council’s innovation committee looks at what those up-and-coming innovations and technologies are that we need to pay attention to as the federal government. What could we adopt? Because even as agencies are working on their 5G test beds for vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, the U.S. DOT, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and many others are doing a lot of work around 5G.

There’s a lot of activity in that space, but I think sharing what we’re doing is critical across the CIO Council so that the council and the CIOs are aware of what other agencies are doing. The CIO Council shares a lot of information about programs and projects. Even as one agency’s focused on 5G, another one is doing work in 5G. There’s also a federal mobility group that is bringing that information together and putting frameworks together so that we’re maturing together across the federal government.

FEDTECH: What are you most excited about as you look ahead to next year and beyond?

Roat: The thing about working in federal government is there are things you can do in the federal government that you will never work on anywhere else, which is actually pretty amazing. Think about the agencies and the work they do, whether it’s the Department of Transportation or NASA. Those come to mind right off the top, or the Department of Energy and critical infrastructure work, or even CISA at DHS on the work they do around security and cybersecurity.

In terms of possibilities, there are opportunities across the federal government around collaboration and data sharing, and it’s not just horizontal but vertical with our state and local partners. When I look across the federal government, I think that spotlight that the pandemic showed is how we can act as an enterprise across the federal government, whether it’s collaboration tools or other things, really moving away from those silos.

Don’t get me wrong, agencies all have their missions. But there are opportunities across the federal government where we can work much better together as we bring some of these systems together. It’s not just around data but it’s also technical and sharing lessons learned from COVID. Then, how do we set the stage for the future and use that to inform governmentwide decision-making and drive those long-term modernization initiatives?

I think over the next few years, as we’re looking at government IT, I want to continue to see that transformation. I talked about the momentum that we had earlier this year with the pandemic and being able to move so fast. I want to be able to move that fast, and I want that to continue.

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