Depending on where you stand in the federal government, the Trump administration’s big IT modernization push might lead to different goals.
For the Defense Department, it means using a technological edge to increase lethality on the battlefield. That’s according to its new National Defense Strategy.
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For the White House and the federal chief information officer, it’s about getting better data analysis from the government’s huge trove of data.
And for the General Services Administration, together with the Agriculture Department, it’s about overhauling the way agencies deliver services online to their customers, whether those customers are members of the public, or other government agencies.
In the new President’s Management Agenda, the Office of Management and Budget lists IT modernization as one of three major pillars. Speaking Thursday at IBM’s Think Gov event, federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent said in some cases, IT modernization is about playing catch up.
“We still have many things to do just to be current in the 21st century, and that is also what’s part of the President’s Management Agenda. The PMA is not necessarily a new fad. In fact, most of the focus areas are continued — they are things that many of you have been working on. But they’re put together under the context of how we use IT to serve the mission, how we change our approach to the way we approach data and consider data as the highest-value asset that we have,” Kent said.
At a White House summit with tech leaders on Wednesday, Kent said they discussed ways to get the most out of the federal government’s huge stores of data. She said that’s one major advantage government CIOs have.
“The federal government has the best data in the world,” Kent said. “The data that is produced is extraordinary, it’s important and we solve problems using that data. But we have to address basic things around the hygiene — the principles of sharing, a fierce protection of privacy, what things we keep internal, what things we make available to the public.”
Kent says the Trump administration that is creating a long-term strategy on those cyber hygiene goals, in the hopes that the next administration will continue its strategy.
However, she also acknowledged that agencies still have a long way to go when it comes to sharing data.
According to Kent, one Department of Health and Human Services official at this week’s White House meeting said it took a year to agree to share data within the agency.
“And then there were multiple others who shared the same story: ‘I need this data, I need that data.’ We have an opportunity to turbo-boost the services that we deliver,” Kent said.
In many cases, the federal government is taking a page from the private sector when it comes to modernizing IT. For example, the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act, which Congress passed last year, sets up working capital funds at agencies.
Those funds allow agencies to save up annual appropriations to invest in multi-year IT projects. Kent says the idea for the working capital fund was borrowed from industry.
“Some of the flexible funding vehicles coming from the private sector, I’m very excited about, because large-scale transformation takes a vision and it takes multiple years,” Kent said. “The funding that you have has to support that same process, so that you can be visionary and tactical at the same time.”
The White House wants modernization to be its legacy for future administrations, and it wants the Agriculture Department to serve as its poster child.
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USDA is the first agency to stand up five centers of excellence. It’ll do that with help from the General Services Administration and the Office of American Innovation.
Those centers will address things like IT infrastructure and customer experience. Once the process is over, other agencies will follow in USDA’s footsteps.
Bob DeLuca, the executive director for the Centers of Excellence IT Modernization Program at GSA, says the value of the CoEs is the partnership between government and the private sector.
He said USDA has cast a wide net within USDA to bring many of its own people to work on the centers of excellence. Those agency employees, he added, will keep the operation running long after GSA stand up centers of excellence at other agencies.
“The design of the CoEs is not to be at an agency forever. It is to be there for a certain period of time to help produce the modernization, and then take that playbook and go the second agency and the third agency and however long this goes on. But we don’t want to leave a hole when we leave, so we are training the detailees [at USDA] as well as producing this modernized system,” DeLuca said
Once GSA moves onto the next agency, Deluca says USDA still has its work cut out for itself.
“There’s no end state. You can’t say you’re modernized. By the time we’re finished in two or three years at UDSA, it’s not going to be done, but the culture that we leave behind will be a culture that is continuing that presence. We hope to package that again and bring that to the next place, if it’s not there already,” he said.
On the defense side of things, the military services have its own modernization agenda.
Maj. Gen. William Hix, the deputy director of the Army Modernization Command Task Force, said making sure the military has a tech advantage on the battlefield is key to maximizing lethality.
“We are moving very aggressively to exploit the leading edge of development today — cloud computing, in particular, and substantiation of narrow AI and as broad AI becomes increasingly available, we’ll look to exploit that as well,” Hix said.
Those capabilities, he added, are already evident on-the-ground in features like pilot assist tools in the latest helicopters and the equipment given to soldiers.
Hix says he’s also looking to use augmented and virtual reality technology to train soldiers.
“You always want to do the live training, but if you can raise the level of competence and familiarity of leaders and their units in the virtual space before you go live, you get a far better outcome at the end of the day,” Hix said.
While the Army prefers live training when it can help it, Hix says virtual training could get more bang for the Army’s buck.
“Our very best units train live all the time, our tier-one counter-terrorism forces. But they also have ammunition accounts that we usually associate with corps, which are several hundred thousand people. We can’t do that for every platoon and squad in the Army,” DeLuca said.