News flash: Obama and Trump agree on this $95B item

President Donald Trump has made much of his repealing or canceling executive orders and other gambits from his predecessor, Barack Obama. But when it comes to policy toward federal information technology, the Trump plan for 2018 could have been written by the Obama crew.

In fact, it probably was. My hunch is career staff at the Office of Management and Budget wrote the IT policy backgrounder that starts on page 191 of the Analytical Perspectives section of this week’s budget request release. Given all of the flies at which the Trump administration is swatting, I can picture an OMB staff member running the idea of a modernization fund or better cybersecurity past the nearest harried political she could find, seeking (and getting) the answer, “Yeah, yeah, sure, we’re for that.”

Thus this sentence: “The Administration will work to modernize and improve government operations and service delivery by building modern citizen-facing digital services, buying more like a business, improving cybersecurity, investing in improved data analytics, and generating greater cost efficiencies.”

To wit:

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  • Federal IT spending would rise in 2015 to $95.7 billion, up a good $1.7 billion over this year, and nearly $5.5 billion over 2016. True, the mix changes. The Defense Department would get all of next year’s increase, with the civilian side taking a slight reduction.
  • Modernizing remains a top priority. The passage points out that the big bugaboo — the percentage of IT dollars that go to maintaining the old stuff — rose over the last three years despite the Obama administration’s best efforts. It now stands at more than 70 percent. Like Obama, Trump proposes placing “a portion” of that big IT tab into a technology modernization fund. The fund would be self-sustaining, supported by a “repayment requirement.” The passage doesn’t specify how. Under the Obama plan, it would be repaid out of savings from the modernized systems.
  • Cloud computing is still there, but it looks like an old paragraph can be pasted in here. The discussion centers on email and collaboration tools migration to the cloud. That’s still a valid goal, but many agencies have moved far beyond simply having email in the cloud.
  • On cybersecurity, the 2018 policy sustains continuous diagnostics and mitigation, enterprise risk management, alignment with the Federal Information Security Management Act, and cybersecurity guidelines from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Nothing new-sounding.
  • IT acquisition. Here you find the familiar language of the government buying as a single entity, avoiding contract duplication, and failure to “leverage modern private sector practices,” whatever those are. The Trump administration acknowledges the Obama-era category management practices and says it will drive adoption of them.
  • Digital services to citizens. A crown jewel in the Obama-era IT strategy, U.S. Digital Service, remains embedded, with the new administration promising to us it to attract “some of the country’s top technical talent.”

Now we’ll have to wait and see how the administration executes on these ideas. It’s as if a new orchestra has come in, using the old one’s instruments. Until the administration appoints a federal chief information officer, the baton is still lying on the conductor’s stand.