Paul McCloskey


In federal digital plan, sharing is the hardest part

The Obama administration's new digital government strategy is no common technology policy. In advocating a new services architecture that would provide the public access to open digital government information “anywhere, anytime, on any device,” it has the tone of a manifesto, although one to be carried out in a highly managed fashion.

The strategy recasts government agencies as creators and consumers of bits, data and content that can be tagged, mashed up and reused by citizens and businesses as they see fit. It likewise calls for agencies to take a “customer-centric” approach to presenting data through any number of channels, platforms and programming interfaces desired by citizens, businesses or other agencies.

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Although these aren’t brand-new ideas they are a staple of the open-source and open-government movements coming from the top of the administration they represent a bold government IT plan.

“Ultimately, this strategy aims to be disruptive,” the plan states. “It provides a platform to fundamentally shift how government connects with and provides services to the American people.”

If carried out, it would roil the way agencies do business. Yet the strategy’s greatest disruption might be in one of its more conventional recommendations, a call for agencies to take a “shared platform” approach to “reduce costs, streamline development, apply consistent standards and ensure consistency in how we create and deliver information.”

This piece of the strategy incorporates federal CIO Steven VanRoekel’s recent Shared First initiative that asks agencies to consider existing systems, programs and processes before rolling their own. But demand for shared services has been part of government IT reforms for years. And agencies’ historic hesitance to take up such partnerships shows how disruptive this aspect of the digital strategy might be.

Examples of the agencies’ failure to share services are easy to find. In a 2011 “State of the Federal Web Report,” agencies identified 150 separate systems used to create and publish content and 250 Web hosting providers. Only about a third of agencies reported that they have standardized Web policies and procedures across their departments/agencies. More than disruptive, shared services are plain hard work.

It may be a government sector not mentioned in the digital strategy state governments where the desire to share services outpaces federal efforts.

A recent study by IDC Government cited the states of Utah and Michigan as pioneers of “regional cloud hubs” that offer computing services to other government agencies. According to the report, Utah has already reduced its 35 data centers to just two computing facilities, via hosted cloud services.

Although IT consolidation is now under way in federal agencies, it has required the push from mandates. For states, which are required to keep a balanced budget, financial pain is the more likely impetus to share and share alike. But in both cases, disruption is a given.

About the Author

Paul McCloskey is senior editor of GCN. A former editor-in-chief of both GCN and FCW, McCloskey was part of Federal Computer Week's founding editorial staff.

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