What's right and what's wrong with IT reform plans
CIO Council plan offers strong improvements but includes a few weaknesses
December 2010 gave us two important reports on federal IT reform: “25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management” by the CIO Council and the “Report to the President Realizing the Full Potential of Health Information Technology to Improve Healthcare for Americans: The Path Forward” by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
The first paper covers all federal IT, while the latter suggests improvements for health care IT. Overall, both reports are well done and introduce significant innovations to long-standing problems. Let’s examine some of the highlights of the CIO Council’s report.
The CIO Council's action plan outlines 25 concrete activities, a time frame for completion and responsible parties. Here are the best elements:
- The CIO will develop a strategy for shared services and publish a cloud strategy. Both are desperately needed and should lead to large efficiencies of scale if implemented properly. The shared-services strategy is solid low-hanging fruit.
- Align the acquisition process to the faster pace of the technology cycle by developing a cadre of specialized IT acquisition personnel, strengthening IT acquisition skills through training, and identifying best practices.
- Reduce barriers to entry for small, innovative technology companies. Having been with several small, innovative technology companies, I have seen the technical version of David and Goliath play out many times on the battlefield of IT innovation.
- Align the budget process with the pace of technology evolution by working with Congress on more flexible IT budget models. That is especially important in the information management domain, as traditional enterprise activities have been difficult to fund on a sustained basis. The problem worsens for cross-agency activities.
- Empower agency CIOs by consolidating IT spending under their purview and shift their focus to portfolio management.
- Improve accountability through the TechStat model at the department and, eventually, bureau level. More transparency and improved investment reviews will deliver efficiencies.
On the other hand, the CIO Council report does have some problems. Here are the ones I found most troubling:
- For platform as a service (PAAS), shifting to a cloud-first policy without cloud interoperability is just cloud foolish. As long as government IT managers have to arbitrarily choose whose version of the cloud they will develop for, the entire notion of PAAS is in peril. In fact, if anyone says “to the cloud,” you should reply, “Which one?” The reality is that for application development, there is no such thing as “the” cloud. There is Google’s cloud, Microsoft’s cloud, Salesforce’s cloud, Amazon’s cloud, and so on. To be fair, there is less interoperability risk for software-as-a-service and infrastructure-as-a-service offerings. So for those types of IT acquisitions, cloud first is fine.
- The document fails to define or poorly defines many key terms, such as light technologies, modular development, must-move services, cloud first, shared services and many others. The report is particularly egregious in this regard with the failure to define modular development, which is used 20 times in the document. If you type “define: modular development” in a Google search, you get, “No definitions were found for ‘modular development’.” Is this a code word for agile development? In light of my previous columns on agile development, I sincerely hope not. Additionally, some of the descriptions of modular development in the document do not fit the agile model and instead are closer to spiral development.
- Key metrics in the document seem arbitrary. Specifically, why 800 data centers, or three must-move services, or six-month releases, or three months for system specifications? There are no justifications for those numbers.
In the next column, I will do a reality check on the report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Given that registration is now open for meaningful use of electronic health records incentive payments, that report on improving health care IT is more important than ever.