Tips from state CIOs on modernizing the House

State legislatures take advantage of a number of online services, including interactive bill document management, remote voting, public commenting and remote testimony for legislative witnesses. The U.S. House could tap into that technology, too, according to two state CIOs who testified before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress on July 24.

Some of Capitol Hill's internal and public-facing IT systems are decades old, and lawmakers said the spotty Wi-Fi coverage on Capitol Hill illustrates Congress' dependence on modern applications that are wedded to aging infrastructure.

"Members coming here from state legislatures are shocked at the lack of support" for IT capabilities, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said.

Committee Chairman Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) invoked a common complaint. "Congress is an 18th-century institution using 20th-century technology to solve 21st-century problems," he said.

To update IT systems on Capitol Hill, federal legislators should turn to cloud-based email, common infrastructure, robust Wi-Fi and innovative contracting, the state CIOs said. One of the witnesses at the hearing, Virginia's CIO Nelson Moe, served as CIO of the U.S. House until he moved to the state position in 2015. He told the panel that as House CIO, his focus was more tactical than strategic as he sought to address lawmakers’ immediate needs on a daily basis. "It was knife-fight innovation," he said.

As Virginia's CIO, Moe said he supports IT innovation through contracting. The commonwealth has a central systems integrator and seven best-of-breed suppliers for cloud email, mainframe operations, servers, storage, networks and printing for 63 state agencies.

That approach makes assembling effective, quick IT solutions for state agencies "like using Legos," with new capabilities set up to interlock with existing ones, he added. It "is a key factor to innovate at the speed and scale" needed and could be a good strategy for the House’s IT modernization efforts.

Moe advised committee members to "consider consolidation of commodity IT infrastructure and focus on enhancing the ability to provide high-value, differentiating IT services for members."

Mike Rohrbach, CIO and IT director for Washington state's legislature, said cloud computing is a key ingredient for forward-looking capabilities and applications. The technology frees up back-office systems, simplifies the devices lawmakers use and streamlines citizens’ access to publicly available data.

To facilitate lawmakers’ activities and interactions with citizens, Washington's legislature uses a portfolio of technologies, including cloud-based email, electronic bill tracking and voting, and strong Wi-Fi coverage across the capitol campus, he said. The state also invested in a distributed antenna system for its campus in Olympia two years ago in anticipation of coming 5G service.

Kilmer said retaining highly skilled IT workers has been a challenge for the federal government and asked the state CIOs: "How do you recruit people?"

"We're 50 miles from Seattle," Rohrbach said. "We're not going to steal people from Amazon or Google." Instead of targeting higher-end, "hard-skilled" technologists, his team "recruits on aptitude and attitude. Occasionally, we'll get lucky," but his goal is to find people who will focus on customers’ and the state's needs rather than the technology.

Moe said Virginia's contracting approach shifts "the cost burden of high-tech staffing to suppliers and vendors," and his office often attracts employees who are seeking a solid, reliable place to work.

This article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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