idea

Notebook

4 real-world takeaways from ELC

The government IT community gathered for the Executive Leadership Conference (ELC) in Williamsburg, Va., this week. The theme for the meet-up focused on how to show a tangible return on tech investment: “Driving results in a 21st century government.”

The spotlight on IT productivity was apt given the tough financial year that industry and agency managers have endured, including the federal budget sequester, the government shutdown and the bumpy debut of HealthCare.gov, the Obama administration’s health insurance shopping website.

Overall, the tone of the conference was upbeat, with presentations and panel discussions on how to seed innovative software development in government, the uses of big data techniques to monitor and predict cyberattacks on agency networks, and the use of analytics to strengthen agency financial discipline.

Even Federal CIO Steven Van Roekel, who addressed the conference after a seven month hiatus from speech-giving, sounded a positive note. The trials of launching HealthCare.gov, he said, should be viewed as a “‘teachable moment’ about how we continue to evolve and drive these systems forward.”

In looking ahead to 2014, the federal IT leader said his agenda would center on “innovation, the effectiveness of how we’re serving the American people through online platforms, and continuing our momentum on a digital strategy for applications. And cost savings will continue to be a priority in driving new ways of buying through strategic sourcing.”

Here are four examples of how those ideas are being put to use.

1. DHS Management Cube

Those themes were echoed in a presentation by Raphael Borras, the acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department, who described a financial big data program DHS plans to debut in January that would “empower our program managers” in a way that is “going to be revolutionary for us.”

The department will launch what it calls the “Management Cube,” an integration strategy to amass financial data from across the department onto one platform, Borras said. With new software tools, DHS analysts will be able to use the system to pull business data from across DHS’s 22 program bureaus and agencies in the areas of finance, IT, procurement and real estate to plot costs and efficiencies.

Borras called the Cube, “the first-ever enterprise system that would allow [agency leaders] to have informed information and be able to make informed decisions.”

“Now we can do things we could never do before,” he said. “The amount of information we can pull together and harness is just astonishing for us. We know what our spend is, we know where programs are in maturity and we know how well they’re staffed.”

The system is not just for top agency executives. “It’s really to push [the analytics] out to the front lines to the program managers who need this information because that defines whether we can operate more business-like,” Borras said. “It’s driving us toward understanding how we’re building tools at the enterprise level and how we’re going to unleash these tools so that we can drive results.”

2. Big data and analytics: share and share alike

Big data was also the dominant theme at a session on using analytics to monitor and defend agency networks. One clear message: Large agencies are far better equipped with security analytics than smaller agencies – and smaller agencies want their help.

Brad Nix, chief information security officer for the Agriculture Department’s Food and Nutrition Service, said agencies should think about ways they might better share analytics resources. Nix wanted the panel to think about, “how we can get access to big data that is provided at [other] agencies and how we can access resources to provide strong analytics against that data to support our needs?”

Kathy Conrad, principal deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, agreed. “There’s a difference between an agency like DHS, which has a very robust dashboard and great visibility across a diverse set of data, and a small agency that has a more limited view of the vectors into their agency,” she said.  

Strategic sharing of such resources might be in order. “How do you share that information across the enterprise so that government as a whole has the advantage of what they are learning from all the data in a proactive way, so that we can act from a risk prevention posture rather than a defensive posture,” she asked.

3. Millennial culture shock

Of course, collaboration between agencies – or staffers – is not always easy.

Vidya Spandana learned that the hard way. Spandana was chosen as a 2013 Presidential Innovation Fellow to work on open data initiatives at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a small government agency whose mission is to end global poverty through economic growth.

When she moved to Washington, D.C., from California earlier this year, she was “very fired up,” she told the ELC audience.

In starting out at the agency, she negotiated a small budget for herself and was also “excited to have a developer and designer to work with and was especially excited about this treasure trove of new data that they promised me,” she said.

But she was in for a shock. “In a couple of weeks, reality hit,” she said. “I ended up receiving no money, and there was absolutely no one available to support this effort.” She also found out she wouldn’t have access to the data trove.

But she persevered. Ultimately, Spandana said she found some collaborators inside the agency, and “formed a scrappy team of committed individuals” and was able to “accomplish some things that none of us thought were possible.”

One of those was development of a data catalog, “a website with a user interface that makes it easy for people and machines to access MCC’s data. Spandana and her team redesigned the front end of the catalogue, installed a database management system and built an enterprise application programming interface in matter of weeks.

All in all, the project took a matter of hours spread across several weeks. A final shock: When the team did solicit a quote for the work from an outside contractor, the price was $100,000. “That’s just crazy,” Spandama said.

4. Teachable moments for agile

Greg Godbout, who was also a 2013 Innovation Fellow, had a different experience. Working on RFP-EZ, a Small Business Administration project to simplify ways businesses can sell services to government, he was able to help launch applications that were all eventually funded.

One project made it much easier for contractors to search the FedBizOpps contract opportunities list for specific expertise wanted, such as Web development skills. Another application provided information on what the government had paid for products and services in the past.

The project helped break down barriers to using agile software development techniques in government. “The government is not used to agile development,” Godbout said. “The concept that you would get software back from a developer and it was ‘bad’ … would be received as, ‘Great, another piece of broken software I have to logon to’.”

“So we repositioned that by saying, ‘This is a test; if it works we’re going to pull components out of it [to improve the application]. It blew their mind in many cases how fast we had to reiterate,” he said. “But most of the time they’d come around and say, ‘Oh, we can actually effect change and see the results immediately.’”

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