McLEAN, Va. -- In perhaps its most dramatic move yet toward reshaping the federal IT apparatus, the Obama administration on Friday announced a multipronged strategy to improve efficiencies and eliminate waste from the government's sprawling technology operations, including a mandate for all agencies to embrace cloud computing.
Speaking here at an event hosted by the Northern Virginia Technology Council, Jeffrey Zients, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), described a "cloud-first" policy that Obama plans to incorporate in the fiscal 2012 budget, directing IT managers across the federal government to look to lightweight, distributed IP-based systems ahead of building their own technologies in-house.
"Government agencies too often rely on proprietary, custom IT solutions. We need to fundamentally shift this mindset from building custom systems to adopting lighter technologies and shared solutions," Zients said.
"What this means is that going forward, when evaluating options for new IT development, OMB will require that agencies default to cloud-based solutions whenever a secure, reliable, cost-effective cloud option exists."
The cloud computing initiative means that agencies will be asked to consider Web-based applications in areas like productivity and collaboration, but it also calls for a hard look at infrastructure. The administration has conducted a review of federal IT installations, and tallied more than 2,000 data centers across the country, many of which operate well below their peak capacity.
"The reason we're really, really focused on cloud computing is because it also allows us to bring in new ideas, new energy, new ways of solving some really, really difficult problems when it comes to information technology," Federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in a question-and-answer session following Zients' talk. "With the default policy towards cloud, what that really moves is behavior toward where agencies are going to provision IT rather than build wherever possible, especially when it comes to commodity IT."
Zients announced a goal of trimming the number of federal data centers by 40 percent by 2015, with more detailed plans for phasing out and consolidating specific locations to come in March.
Zients had been serving as acting director of OMB until the White House secured Senate confirmation of Jacob Lew yesterday afternoon to replace Peter Orszag as permanent head of the agency. He also serves the nation's first chief performance officer, and said this morning that remaking the hulking federal IT infrastructure is atop Obama's agenda for streamlining the internal workings of government.
"Too often, IT projects run over budget, behind schedule, or fail to deliver their promise of functionality," Zients said. "Fixing IT is central to everything we're trying to do across government. IT is our top priority."
The White House has taken a number of steps toward IT reform, including the launch of Apps.gov, an online portal for commercial vendors to showcase their cloud-based technologies for government IT buyers. The administration's tech team has also set up an online dashboard to track the spending and progress of IT deployments across the government, with the aim of generating more detailed reporting data to identify and either rehabilitate or terminate underperforming projects.
But the administration went a step further today, rolling out a set of policy changes that address every stage of the IT cycle, including budgeting, procurement and management.
To start, the White House is looking to bring the agency budgeting process into step with the acquisition period, reducing the lag time between when agencies must submit their initial funding requests for projects and the point when they make the purchase. Zients explained that agencies must submit detailed requests for IT projects two years in advance, while the acquisition process can then often drag on at least another year, resulting in the deployment of technology that is "almost definitionally out of date" by the time it arrives.
"The way we currently budget and acquire IT is broken," he said. "All of you know three years is forever in technology."
Of course, reforming the rules of bedrock bureaucratic functions like appropriations and procurement is not an overnight process, and Zients pledged that the administration would work with Congress as it looks to set up pilot programs across the agencies to craft a swifter IT acquisition cycle. But within existing rules are flexibilities that can also speed the process, he said, announcing the administration's initiative to recruit and train experts in the acquisition process to help the agencies better keep pace with the rapid evolution of commercial IT products.
Zients described the private-sector "productivity boom" that stemmed from the development of information technology over the last few decades, lamenting that the federal government began to fall behind in the 1980s, and has slipped steadily since.
"We can no longer accept a government that performs less effectively and less efficiently than the private sector," he said. "When you look inside a typical government operation, you're struck by the absence of many of the systems, processes and tools that we all take for granted in the private sector."
In that spirit, another administration objective is to drive closer collaboration with industry, which will include a "myth-busting" campaign to educate agency managers about the extent to which they are permitted to consult with members of the private sector before they veer into impropriety. Zients explained that many government managers have become so "risk averse" that they err, excessively, on the side of caution, consciously avoiding contact with business community for fear of breaking a rule.
Other elements of the White House reform push include efforts to streamline the overlapping and often duplicative layers of governance and oversight, replacing them with reconstituted investment review boards to evaluate the merit and progress of federal IT projects.
Additionally, Zients outlined a new initiative at the Office of Personnel Management that will aim to "professionalize" federal program managers, charting out a distinct career path for the stewards of government IT projects.
Taken together, the administration's announcements come as a response to the concern that federal IT has fallen hopelessly behind the private sector, both by measure of the types of technology in use and the methods by which projects are planned, implemented and managed.
"These reforms will enable us to move away from the grand design, boil-the-ocean approaches of the past to the agile, modular approaches that have transformed the success rate of IT projects in the private sector, by breaking projects into manageable chunks then demanding the functionality every few quarters, not every few years," Zients said.