For CIOs in the federal government, figuring out how to harness IT innovation is like playing four-dimensional chess. There are so many different moving parts, and each agency has to make its own tradeoffs between cost, risk and mission.
For some, such as the CIA, innovation is essential because the mission is national security.
“Innovation [is] relevance at the speed of mission,” said John Edwards, the CIA CIO, speaking May 25th at the Digital Government Institute’s annual cyber security conference. The intelligence agency used to have an Office of Research and Development, but it was eliminated a number of years ago, he said. “The problem was, it had a great portfolio of programs and projects, but in my opinion they weren’t relevant – people who needed stuff today couldn’t get it.”
After a few years, the CIA realized it needed something akin to the Office of R&D, so it created the Office of Chief Scientist. Again, Edwards said, the OSC was working on good stuff, but it was looking too far out into the future, rather than addressing urgent, immediate needs.
“Now there’s a new directorate at CIA … the Directorate of Digital Modernization,” Edwards said, within which he’s the director of IT enterprise modernization. “We brought in open source, created a new data office with a new data officer … We now have offense and defense reinforcing each other.”
The CIA has a number of ongoing innovation initiatives, some of them well established – such as In-Q-Tel, founded in 1999 – others brand new, such as the internal DevOps factory the agency created to help develop new apps aimed at the needs of the intelligence community. Even procurement is attempting to be more innovative.
“Putting out contracts with [full-time equivalents] numbers on them just creates a shoot-out,” Edwards said. “None of our contracts in the future will have FTEs … We’re trying to open the door for creativity and innovation.”
“This change away from FTEs is one of the big changes in contracts and procurement that we’ll see as federal CIOs begin to drive IT modernization within their agencies,” said Jeff Kramer, Senior Director of Government Solutions at Reed Tech. “In order to stop feeding the legacy IT mentality, we’re going to see federal CIOs really focus on what their core competencies are for mission success and what they can hand-off to private sector partners.”
“There are a myriad of missions across the federal space, with different levels of protection for different levels of data,” she said. Even within a department there are wide variations; at the Department of Homeland Security, for example, some areas are completely open to the public, such as the Federal
Having some hands-on IT experience would be a great benefit for many acquisition professionals. That’s some career advice from Keith Nakasone, the General Services Administration’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Acquisition, Office IT Category.
“I have 27 years of procurement in IT and telecom. I grew up more in the operational and tactical world of the procurement process, not only writing contracts but out in the field and pulling cable,” he said. “One of the things I learned in my career [is] it’s impossible to understand the challenges … without doing some of it.”
Nakasone said he likes to focus on market research about things “that would help us work the procurement after it’s awarded.” GSA is looking at “agile procurement,” he said, building an 80/20 solution – contracts that meet 80% of the government’s needs – but making the contract vehicles more flexible so they can be adapted to the changing technology landscape over the life of the contracts.
“In the end,” said Kramer,” IT modernization is only partly a technology problem; it’s also a people problem, a process problem. Because technology is racing faster than people can catch up it’s essential to work with private sector partners to ensure that you’re able to access the innovative technology, the processes to support it, and the people who understand how all the pieces fit together in order to maximize return on investment.”
Kramer suggested that integrating innovation begins with innovation of thought, changing the way agencies and their employees view everything, from how to deliver on their missions to their relationship with vendors, before they even get to the actual technology.
“I think federal agencies know which technology they need to acquire,” Kramer concluded. “What will drive success is thinking like that of Edwards and Nakasone who understand that people and process change is also part of the IT modernization process.”