Collaborating to Build a Connected 21st Century Federal Government

The U.S. transformation to a 21st century digital government ecosystem has gathered considerable momentum in recent years, but clearly, much still needs to change. In October 2015, Dell Services hosted the Dell World Executive Summit, which included exploring insights into the next frontier in government modernization. Frank Baitman, Chief Information Officer with the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and LaVerne Council, Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology (OI&T) and Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), shared some of the major issues their agencies face, as well as the important role information technology (IT) is playing in agency modernization.

For example, Baitman described HHS’ consolidation of its six e-mail systems into one system and its subsequent movement to the cloud. Observing that cloud as a service has been particularly appealing to HHS, he said “You only pay for what you use, and it was eye opening. As we began rolling this out, we uncovered a lot of waste, such as people having unused accounts.” The benefits to his agency are reduced redundancy and better customer service; but with the project about 80 percent complete, he also faces reskilling challenges to ensure that security training is up to date, as well as funding obstacles.  “At Health and Human Services, we come up with dollars in crisis, and our budget is one big lump sum,” Baitman explained, adding that this is typical of government. He also spoke of the need for innovation and training to help clear roadblocks.

LaVerne Council stressed that at the VA, customer service is the number one priority, so data security is always top-of-mind. “Right after the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breach, we knew that this problem must not happen to the veterans. We had a security strategy in place and rolled it out within 90 days.” Council was quick to acknowledge that IT is transforming the organization by enabling government to operate cross-functionally, rather than in “stove-pipes” or silos.

Baitman mentioned that the Cybersecurity Sprint (an accelerated push for agencies to meet mandatory executive orders to address security threats and minimize vulnerabilities) was effective. “The White House focused on renovating the core, going to old technology that the agency relies on, elevating it, and bringing it to a new platform. We needed to look at how to make it sustainable on security—the way we maintain and improve it, and the risks involved.”*

However, data protection and data security are but two examples of the complexities involved in moving government into the digital age. Creating a future-ready cyber-security scenario that encompasses funding, governance, privacy and analytics demands a comprehensive strategy that is both offensive and defensive. The CIOs of both the HHS and the VA attest to the necessity of such a strategy in today’s evolving federal environment.

The VA’s strategy for future readiness is already working. “With the strategy we laid out, the team can move on the platform and move with the strategy in the future,” Council said. “With metrics and dashboards, they can leverage that framework and run.”

Such a comprehensive, actionable IT strategy enables government organizations to adapt to—and benefit from—changing technology over time. It can also provide the platform for an effective risk management approach for disruptive forces ranging widely from BYOD in government to the challenge of attracting new talent into the aging federal workforce. Every federal agency is currently grappling with these complex issues, in addition to cyber-security, cloud capabilities as a service and big data. All are also intent on embracing social media to improve collaboration, carving out cost at every level and bringing innovation to government. IT expertise holds the key to resolution of all of these digital transformation problems.

Addressing executive priorities, such as data center consolidation, a cloud first policy and a shared services strategy, requires a shift away from a simple troubleshooting mindset to the broad-based sharing of best practices that fosters collaboration. As the U.S. government hungers for greater innovation at a reduced cost, its demand for a steady source of new ideas has continued to escalate.

Agencies are responding by putting changes in place. “We are streamlining operations,” Council explained, “so we can function more consciously and with greater agility, of course, but our IT organization has a mission of veterans first, and we are driven to do what’s right. We focus on helping the veterans and improving their experience.” Noting that the VA has a culture of local enterprise and highly values strong communication, Council enumerated some steps her team has taken to improve the quality of communication inside the VA, such as creating video programs and weekly updates, in addition to encouraging lively dialogue about the veteran experience. Recently, Council brought the top 300 VA leaders together for three days to discuss changes for the organization. “It’s time for a new day and a new way, and my team’s performance goals are also evolving. Expectations are clear.”

Baitman expressed hesitation that IT vendors have strong enough business knowledge to work effectively for all ten HHS operating divisions, but acknowledged that he sees a new balance emerging with cloud as a service. He also firmly stated that the jury is still out on the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act.

(FITARA). “But even if FITARA did not pass, I’d still do it. It provides greater visibility on our IT spend, which is over $10 billion.” He felt strongly that support would be needed from both the HHS Secretary and Congress, noting that each has a different agenda. “The overseer wants you to be efficient; the appropriator wants you to move the money to the right places,” according to Baitman.

DSFG is helping a number of federal agencies succeed in their efforts to share knowledge both within and outside their organizations to enhance their agility, as well as their ability to innovate and collaborate. Additionally, Dell is partnering with them to create custom cloud environments that enable them to better manage their own infrastructures—and their futures.

An interconnected, streamlined digital government ecosystem that supports open interaction with the American people obviously doesn’t happen overnight; outdated processes, legacy systems and bureaucratic red tape still create frustrating roadblocks to progress. The good news is, as IT has evolved, great strides have been made, and federal agencies are becoming better at serving their 21st century constituencies.

DSFG is ready to serve as your trusted IT partner. We offer a proven, 20-year heritage with federal agencies and success with more than 1,350 IT initiatives for over 350 federal government and commercial organizations of every size. Learn how DSFG can help you in your efforts to build a connected 21st century federal government. Contact a Dell federal government expert today.

*DSFG helped the U.S. Department of Education successfully complete the 30-Day Cybersecurity Sprint in less than seven days.

About the Author: Sanjeev Nehra