DoT, USDA to stop kicking the IT consolidation can down the road

The Agriculture and the Transportation departments are part of a growing number of agencies on a consolidation binge.

USDA was one of the first to reduce the number of email systems, and now it has its sights set on the next level down of redundant IT applications.  At DoT, Richard McKinney, the department’s chief information officer, said he wants to get all of the components out of the commodity IT services business. DoT and USDA are part of a trend moving across the government to change how agencies invest, oversee and use basic IT services.

Tony Scott, the federal chief information officer, said the Office of Management and Budget’s focus over the next 20 months will be in ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of every dollar spent on IT. “The part about driving value is also about driving efficiency. There are a number of ways we will do that — the adoption of agile technologies, creating the right kind of dashboards that will help us understand whether we are making progress or not is an important part of the journey that we are on in that space,” Scott said at the March 24 AFCEA Bethesda breakfast.

While this initiative may not be new, the Office of Management and Budget has talked for years around moving money from operations and maintenance (O&M) to development, modernization and enhancements (DME), or moving from operational expenses (OPEx) to capital expenses (CapEx), but the reality is a lot more difficult than the perception. The widespread acceptance of cloud computing, the push to having a more mobile workforce and realization that security must be at the data layer and not the system or application layer has helped pushed some change.

But what Scott and other federal leaders recognize is the potential for better services and savings, and the ease of moving to the cloud — whether commercial or government — is finally turning talk into action. “You will see a continued and renewed actually interest in data centers, and not just shutting down data centers, but more how are we going to gain efficiencies and effectiveness by really looking at how we use the cloud as we think about shutting down data centers,” said Lisa Schlosser, OMB’s deputy associate administrator in the office of E-Government and IT.

Reducing 15 networks

OMB estimates that agencies spend about 8.5 percent of the government’s IT budget on cloud services. Schlosser said Scott wants agencies to think more strategically about how cloud and other emerging technologies could impact their mission. This strategic view of commodity IT services is happening at USDA and DoT.

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Joyce Hunter, the acting chief information officer at USDA, said now that email in the cloud has proved successful, she’s ready to take on the agency’s assorted networks. USDA has 15 networks and Hunter said they need to be consolidated. She said the strategy is under development so it’s unclear whether there will be one or multiple networks, but she knows there will be less than 15.

“We are now doing the evaluation. We will be part of the Network [Services 2020] contract as well. Probably within the next 18 months we will have a RFP out or a RFI out looking at ways we can consolidate our network infrastructure,” Hunter said. “We’re going to develop a target architecture for our enterprise architecture so we that know what systems touch other systems because we hadn’t been talking in the past. Now that we do have this really great collaboration and our CIO council, we’re able to build a foundation where we can now move forward.”

McKinney, at Transportation, is taking a different approach to consolidation.

Getting out of the IT business

He said for too long DoT was just a bunch of bureaus with little connection to each other when it came to IT. But McKinney saw an opportunity to create high-quality shared services to let bureau level CIOs focus on mission critical needs.

“I brought the CIOs of all the various operating administrations to the table and said, ‘How can this be acceptable? This is not acceptable. You’ve been living in this silo. You think that’s what IT is all about and you complain you don’t have enough money, but then you duplicate the spending of others and you act like there isn’t enough money to go around. We have plenty of money. We just don’t spend it very wisely,'” he said. “They were taken aback a little bit. Then they said, ‘The problem is you don’t have a team capable of providing a dependable and reliable shared service. Until you do better at that, we will continue to hug our servers and hug the silos.’ I said, ‘That’s fair, that’s true.’ I’ve said since the day I walked in the door IT is a team sport. It’s about the teams that you build. It’s about the conversations that you have.”

That conversation with the component CIOs led McKinney to bring in new expertise, starting with Chief Technology Officer Maria Roat. He also elevated his deputy Kristen Baldwin, hired a chief data officer, Dan Morgan, elevated the chief geospatial officer, hired a new shared services director, and created a new policy and governance team. 

“I’m really excited about what’s about to happen because now, I’m ready for their business,” McKinney said. ” I told the [bureau CIOs] the other day — I had a meeting with them — I said one of the things about Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) and how I’m going to use that authority is you all are getting out of the IT business.”

McKinney said that means the bureau CIOs will no longer have to worry about networks, storage, compute power and the like. Instead, he said, he wants them to work only with their business and mission owners at the solutions layer to bring IT to solve mission challenges.

“The catch phrase that I used since I’ve been there is this infrastructure, this disjointed, federated decentralized infrastructure, that beast always gets fed first. So you are firefighting and you run out of money, and then what do you do with your solutions layer? You just kick the can down the road. That’s how we end up with all these legacy solutions. Then, the experience of the customer is ‘They are kind of old school,'” he said. “It’s time we change that, and I as the CIO step up and accept the responsibility of providing them that basic commodity IT infrastructure, and then be the catalyst to have the conversation to make sure the CIOs are talking to their businesses and the solutions layer.”