Educating Vajda

William Vajda, the U.S. Department of Education's new CIO, brings decades of experience to an agency at the center of a critical mandate.

by / December 19, 2006
The U.S. Department of Education's (ED) newly minted CIO is poised to revamp the agency's IT processes with military precision. With years of experience in the geopolitical theater and other federal agencies, William E. Vajda's task is to modernize and standardize the use of technology so it benefits both the department and the constituents it serves.

Vajda, who has consistently straddled the public and private sectors in his career, joined the department in July 2006 to revamp its entire technology framework. For more than two decades, Vajda occupied executive leadership positions in NATO, technology companies, nonprofit organizations and several federal agencies. He was CIO of the National Security Agency (NSA); an appointee at the Defense Intelligence Senior Executive Service; and deputy assistant commissioner, international and deputy CIO of the IRS. He consolidated the IRS's mainframes and tax processes, and transformed the NSA's global IT initiatives -- two achievements that serve well in his new post.

Vajda is now focused purely on domestic matters, and continues to parlay his impressive background in leadership and problem-solving as he corrals the multiple divisions with the department to help them achieve federal and departmental IT objectives.

This Cabinet-level position is a growth opportunity for Vajda, who said he "was honored" to receive the invitation. He said he is initiating processes at the ED that resemble initiatives in his previous posts. "The nice thing for me," he said, "is that some challenges here are similar to the drive for IT modernization and transformation of business processes at other federal agencies."

The Department of Education's CIO office, like others in federal government, is expected to adhere to industry best practices and follow applicable federal laws and regulations, including the Clinger-Cohen Act, the Government Paperwork Reduction Act and the Federal Information Security Management Act. Vajda reports directly to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and works to improve planning and control of IT investments within an efficient management framework. The office of the CIO is also responsible for the department's business processes. This includes oversight of information resource management and improvements to agency business processes according to budget, which requires a great degree of coordination.

"The ED has taken strides over the past year to improve their management of technology, and it has shown in the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] scorecard," said Marcus Fedeli, manager of Federal Opportunity Products at Input. "Education is in good standing when it comes to e-government initiatives and the president's management agenda. The ED has improved on its e-government initiatives and has improved its score from mixed results to successful. I think this can be attributed to improved internal system and controls."

Dichotomy in Perception
Being the ED's CIO has its own unique challenges across the agency. "We have a dichotomy in our mission and culture," Vajda said. "To the outside world, we look like a bank since we hand out funds in a heavily transaction-oriented environment that is focused on meeting constituent needs. Within the department we operate in an academic-type setting with a dozen or so offices that have operated autonomously to meet centralized requirements."

Reconciling those two views is the task, Vajda said, adding that his peers and seniors understand this dichotomy. "They are proactive and step up to address it, [which is] important in a bureaucracy."

Vajda pointed to leadership changes in the office of the CIO (the deputy CIO position is currently vacant) as reasons for a historic lack of focus on framework and underscore on IT method across the department. "It is easy for Cabinet-level CIOs to focus too much on method, and to fall on one or the other side of the pendulum," he said. "We are looking at how the [office of the CIO] is postured to support the rest of the department and outside constituents, and are striving for balance."

The office is primarily responsible for IT deployment and management of program business processes within the department, as well as information security. However, the department's programs affect children and districts countrywide, and are directly impacted by the CIO's management.

The Unapologetic Program Manager
Vajda wasted no time conveying his expectations to the department and laying out benchmarks for progress. "I expect perfection," he said. "We expect the bank or the post office to give us 100 percent of what we demand, all the time. Seventy [percent] or 80 percent of a bank deposit or mail delivery is not good enough. Here, we won't always achieve perfection, but to use a Navy term, we should always make 'best possible speed' toward that."

With clear guidelines and benchmarks, Vajda said, folks know exactly where they stand and can gauge their work to meet the department's IT objectives.

Vajda, who has been in the office for two months, promptly aligned his office's performance measures with those of the OMB, "embedding" those oversight, training and vendor delivery requirements into his office's leadership approach.

With so many employees to guide, these goals are achievable without excessive and distracting paperwork by clear communication and emphasizing processes. "We can standardize all administrative burdens to a point where the process becomes predictable, and to where the burden is on the organization, not on each individual, to comply," he said.

Frequent meetings and carefully worded directives help to convey the need for standardization and how each office within the ED can follow those guidelines.

Battling the Odds
As for what keeps Vajda and other Cabinet-level CIOs up at night, the answer is familiar: departmental security of sensitive data and personal information. His office provides administrative and technical support to the department's Data Integrity Board, and monitors the department's compliance with the Computer Matching and Privacy Protection Act.

"Looking to the defense and intelligence areas, civil agencies are trying to reinvent that wheel," he said. "The information we hold [at the ED] is equally interesting to adversaries and can be used in other domains. The information we collect in one place can be used in another."

A centralized government portal may have a dark side. "This whole drive toward federation [e-government] makes data perhaps more vulnerable," he said. "E-government requires us to work with all of our partners to ensure security. But what happens if government gets security perfect, i.e., you've hardened the bunkers? That's when the troops (the constituents) get shot. We need to also think of the security of citizen data from outside," he said, referring to recent attacks by Chinese civilian units on Department of Defense code. "Is there a Geneva Convention for that? And do such attacks mean we are at war?"

Changing View of Technology
Next year, Vajda said he would like to see decreased and more efficient spending of IT money, with an increase in critical skill areas and ongoing focus on information security. Program management is the approach of choice. "We can leverage what we have and continue to keep skills fresh."

With the benefit of three previous and different CIO posts in federal government, he is certainly in a position to comment on how the CIO role has changed: "Back when technology was very proprietary, the CIO's role was tactical," he said. "Now the role has shifted more to business functions. We need to interpret requirements and match technology with business solutions to meet those requirements."

Vajda worked with the OMB and the CIO Council for many years, and is accustomed to interagency communication. He said he is glad to have the help of a broader network to lean on across government.

Fedeli is optimistic that the office will continue to make strides. "I think they are continuing to work on the issues, but are farther along than many other agencies when it comes to applying e-government initiatives to their mission statement and agency goals."

Although Vajda is at the start of his tenure at the ED, he said coordination and communication are key tools in the journey. "Our strategy is to reach out to our peers in government. We deeply appreciate the hard work of the OMB and will continue to move forward to meet those requirements."