EXECUTIVE SUITE: Preparing for the IT world of the year 2026

Mimi Browning

Envision the federal IT world in 2026. The Pentagon network operations center operates from India under the ownership of an American company headquartered in Dubai. The National Information Sharing Agency (NISA) has its main data center in the Virginia-Tennessee Tech Corridor with backup operations in Cuba. Military supply-chain operations are run by Wal-Mart Federal. BioBerrys (biometric personal digital assistants) provide secure wireless communications and content management globally to the federal workforce'including special WarBerrys deployed with military personnel. The Social Security Administration help desk (especially busy with all those demanding Baby Boomer requests) is outsourced to China's Lenova Global Services.

Is this a realistic vision? With the exception of NISA (still a cultural stretch in 20 years), the above scenario is a distinct possibility. Information technology continues its march as the enabler of world economic progress and a de facto dismantler of national boundaries. Every day, new partnerships form among corporations, nations and communities to improve work processes and commodities, lower costs, and provide quality products and services to customers.

Despite advances such as e-government services to citizens, the federal IT world has done little to prepare itself as a strong player on the global IT stage. Further, the main factors that will assure competitive play in the IT world of the future'a strong and highly skilled IT workforce and more flexible rules for leveraging global IT capabilities'are scarcely addressed.

Three areas worth considering by federal IT decision-makers are:

Workforce incentives. We need to increase and constantly sharpen the math, science and engineering skills of the government IT workforce. A suggestion is for the federal government to offer four-year math, science and/or engineering college scholarships with the proviso that recipients work for the government in these areas for five years. In addition, federal work rules and benefits should be revised to easily permit former federal workers with in-demand IT skills to work part time or as independent consultants for the federal government.

EXECUTIVE IT LITERACY CERTIFICATION. Federal executives, career and political, must be familiar with the basic concepts and applications of information technology. Before any job offer is made to these C-suite individuals, they should be certified as IT literate at the executive level'that is, knowledgeable in the strategic, business, and financial aspects of IT. Colleges, universities and government schools can assist in providing these certifications.

LEVERAGING GLOBAL IT CAPABILITIES. Federal IT doesn't stop at government buildings or U.S. borders. Two processes can use some rethinking: performing 'inherently governmental work' and viewing the global, not just national, IT workforce as a partner. Since much federal IT work is performed by commercial companies and since many former federal IT executives and specialists work for these companies, why not leverage this fact instead of stifling it? In this regard, consider establishing independently operated subsidiaries of commercial companies (certified as having no conflict of interest by the government) to perform 'inherently governmental IT work.' In addition, we need to revisit 'beyond U.S.' policies for federal government IT work. Some ideas to consider are rewarding highly skilled guest IT workers with U.S. citizenship under selective conditions and providing incentives for commercial companies to provide offshore solutions for routine, transactional IT work.

From the end of World War II through the Cold War, the federal government was considered a pioneer in building computers, developing computer languages and birthing the Internet. Today's global, collaborative and highly competitive Web-centric world requires fresh thinking in these and other areas so that the best minds can bring innovative solutions to federal government IT challenges.

Mimi Browning, a former Army senior executive, is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc., McLean, Va. (E-mail: browning_miriam@bah.com)

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