Agencies spending more on IT modernization efforts than they think

Ray Coleman, the chief information officer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the Agriculture Department, and James Porter, an IT portfolio manage...

Agencies are spending about 76 percent of their technology budgets on old technology and only 24 percent on modern IT.

But that 3 to 1 spending ratio is on the move as the Obama administration pushes agencies to change their IT spending habits.

The Office of Management and Budget is expected to issue policy or guidance or some sort of strategy in the coming weeks to help move the spending pendulum back toward the development, modernization and enhancement (DME) side of the ledger.

At some agencies, that pendulum is moving already.

“One thing we have to realize that within the application perspective, there is a lot of DME going on in the operations and maintenance (O&M), which is also a reason why that number is going up,” said Ray Coleman, the chief information officer of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the Agriculture Department. “The ‘use it or lose it’ is a really real stat. It’s one of the things I’m identifying for my efforts for legacy modernization for my 100 application pool is getting rid of that DME out of the O&M. I’ve made significant progress. I’ve actually reduced by 10 percent from last year to this year.”

Coleman said he didn’t reduce the amount of money being spent on modernizing old IT, but rather he brought the DME out of the shadows of the efforts to support legacy systems.

Many times agencies upgrade applications or systems as part of their usual maintenance, but that spending isn’t counted toward their overall DME spend when reported to OMB.

Coleman said this was part of NRCS’ challenge.

“The first thing I did was define O&M. Everybody out there will tell you OMB defines O&M really well. But I will tell you it’s very nebulous. I put specific parameters in place and said, ‘This is O&M.’ And told my project managers, ‘This is O&M and anything else is DME,’” he said. “So we begin to start having some change management discussions. We begin to start having maintenance plans put together that is signed off by the business and by IT. So as we begin to do that we say, ‘This is really DME as opposed to this definition right there.’ So as we begin to do that, we saw a 10 percent drop of dollars coming out of our O&M pool and back into our DME pool. And that’s really where we are trying to do.”

Coleman, who spoke on a panel during a breakfast sponsored by the AFCEA Bethesda, Maryland, chapter on Jan. 14, hopes by having better data on where the money is going and how much is available, NRCS can create an innovation pool so he can consistently move to better, more efficient and effective technology.

He said for 2016, the goal is to continue to move spending out of O&M and into DME.

“One of the things we are doing is focusing on enterprise architecture,” Coleman said. “We’ve laid out the agency’s strategic plan goals and we are mapping our IT systems to those strategic plan goals. Right now, we are engaging the business elements so we can understand what those functional elements or components are. Then our goal is to map those systems to the functional components. We can begin to say, ‘You have 10 systems doing the same thing, should we have 10 systems doing the same thing?’ And then looking at our technology layer, we have a really good ‘as is’ system inventory of our applications and looking at that technology layer and applications that are 10-15 years old asking if that technology is even relevant anymore and should we be changing these things out?”

Coleman said the end goal is to drive technology to meet business needs and not have the technology dictated to them.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement directorate in the Homeland Security Department is facing a similar challenge around separating O&M and DME.

James Porter, an IT portfolio manager for ICE, said there isn’t one program that isn’t undergoing an upgrade. He said OMB’s cyber sprint from the summer gave ICE a host of new tasks to modernize applications and systems.

“We’re taking a lot of initiatives that I wouldn’t call your traditional DME so we are really bending the use of O&M so they fall within the confines of the programs we’ve defined,” Porter said. “Our O&M costs have actually not gone down, they’ve actually gone up as we’ve modernized our systems. We’ve realized that the reason why we are modernizing is that we’ve been starving these systems and the people around them for so long, it’s in our best interest to make sure we have the proper training on an annual basis, that we have the people and the infrastructure in place and so it’s kind of a hard discussion to say we will modernize and our tail end will be a higher cost. But in order to do that from my perspective is to really make sure we don’t have to go through a really large DME effort again because they are really painful.”

Porter said ICE has several efforts in process to modernize major systems, including the detention removal operations modernization program, the electronic health records and the criminal alien identification initiative.

He said the criminal alien system, which his retiring an old FoxPro database, will hit full operational capability in the coming months.

“We also are in the early planning stages of immigration data modernization and we are trying to get away from event-centric processing to person-centric processing so getting away from forms and the events to really having the history of any given person,” Porter said. “Congress is very interested in knowing what happened to any individual at any given time through the entire immigration lifecycle. That’s a big challenging program that we really are in the process of rolling up our sleeves on.”

Porter said ICE still is defining what the immigration data modernization program will look like.

He said one of ICE’s biggest challenges is controlling the appetite for modernization by the mission areas while also keeping the legacy systems working. At the same time, the agency also needs to have a flexible infrastructure in place to support the modernization initiative.

ICE is actively looking at how best to put its IT portfolio in to the cloud and creating a development/operations capability.

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