Pentagon has a new plan for ‘customer-led’ IT service delivery in OSD offices

The new organization that's now leading technology strategy for the Office of the Secretary of Defense's 19,000 employees thinks it has a workable plan to start...

Taken together, the 17 organizations that make up the Office of the Secretary of Defense are bigger than many federal cabinet level departments. But as of now, no one can put a total dollar figure on OSD’s total information technology spending.

That’s not because anyone’s actively trying to hide the numbers. It’s almost entirely because OSD and its 19,000 employees who work in organizations that report directly to the secretary of Defense — principal staff assistants (PSAs), in DoD parlance — have never been treated as a single enterprise for IT planning or budgeting purposes.

That began to change last year when Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks signed a memo directing an IT modernization effort across OSD, and creating a new CIO position to oversee technology governance and strategy.

Danielle Metz, who serves in that new CIO role, said institutionalizing some of the changes may take years, but there are plenty of ways to improve the day-to-day user experience in the near term.

The first step was publishing a detailed implementation plan, which emphasizes what Metz calls a “customer-led” IT delivery model, rather than one led by the service provider itself.

“We need to prove the value we’re bringing and how we’re going to do things differently,” she said in an interview for Federal News Network’s On DoD. “For 15-plus years, each of these PSAs has had to figure it out for themselves, because they had no one else to go to. Some were very successful, others were not. What we’re offering is a democratization of the accessibility of technology — the ability to be treated as an enterprise … on par with what you see in the military departments and their respective enterprises.”

That “democratization” process started with monthly listening sessions with leaders from each of the organizations that make up OSD, but also the revitalization of the Pentagon Area Customer Council. That council is chaired by leaders from the Joint Staff, OSD, and the Department of the Army — the three large organizations whose Pentagon workspaces get their IT services primarily from the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Joint Service Provider.

“We had this council previously, but in the past, the customers would go point-to-point to the service provider, and therefore, it was overwhelming the service provider: You had a thousand points of light,” Metz said. “Everyone was saying, ‘My thing is really important, you need to do this.’ There was no ability to even try to understand if there is commonality in terms of our needs and issues, and where we could pool together and create strategies and plans and metrics.”

The new OSD IT organization has also added an idea it borrowed from the Air Force: monthly user surveys to get a continual sense of what the common pain points are, fused with metrics from network monitoring tools to prioritize fixes and improvements.

“This is the first time we’ll have a baseline from our users on the state of play — how they feel technology is used or not used, and those questions and the responses that we get will allow for us to do trending analyses,” Metz said. “It also helps us get better questions for the next survey, because we didn’t know what the responses were going to be. Now we’re able to see, ‘Oh, we should have asked it this way,’ or, ‘What if we did this?’ I want a year’s worth of baseline data on the totality of the OSD population and what they are experiencing from a technology perspective.”

That user feedback has already had some impact. Based in part on the surveys, Metz’s team determined OSD’s various organizations needed a common IT helpdesk as soon as possible. That idea — a global service desk — was already in the initial planning stages to be funded in 2025 and beyond, but it’s now in DoD’s 2024 budget proposal.

“I pulled it to the left so that it would happen in October of 2024 — and that will not just benefit OSD, but all of the tenants here at the Pentagon,” she said. “That was the advocacy we were able to do in partnership with the Army and Joint Staff and others. And that’s what we want to bring to bear. You don’t want me to fix your computer — that’s not my skill set. My skill set is assessing the posture of where things are, building the strategies to make it better, and building those cross-functional teams.”

Metz said that within the next 2-3 years, she hopes to be able to present a budget proposal to Congress that reflects all of OSD’s IT requirements. Right now, as a general matter, each of the 17 offices’ IT spending is not broken out separately from the rest of their funding. That fact, among others, makes it difficult to advocate for more resources for the common IT services her office hopes to gain more for funding for.

But once those requirements are better understood, it could also put DoD in a better position to both request and execute funding for mission-specific IT across each of the disparate organizations – which range from various assistant secretaries of Defense, to the director of operational test and evaluation and the office of cost assessment and program evaluation, to the department’s inspector general.

“We met individually with all 17 offices, and the intent of those listening sessions was to set up a rapport and understand their frustrations, and how they use technology to execute their mission. The overwhelming response we received was that they do not use technology to execute their mission. That puts technologists who are in charge of deploying enterprise capabilities on edge — there’s a problem there,” Metz said. “Part of this is going to be a cultural shift: You’re no longer 17 individual special entities. You now are OSD. Once we can come out with what we define as commonality, the services that are going to be provided, and the cost associated with those services, we’ll have the building blocks to get after the more exquisite, difficult activities involved in mission IT.”

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