3 Innovative Federal CIOs Respond to New Pressures

Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Marine Corps CIOs discuss their management approaches.

by , , / June 15, 2012 0
Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally

The role of the federal agency CIO has been the subject of near-constant debate since the passage of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act. Congress intended the law to improve its management within the federal government by designating agency CIOs and giving them authority over and accountability for IT activities. In practice, the results have been mixed, with many agency CIOs struggling with limited executive buy-in and power.  

Empowering agency CIOs is a key component of the 25-point federal IT reform plan released by former U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra. Late last year, U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jacob Lew acted on one of the plan’s recommendations, releasing a memo that puts CIOs in charge of commodity IT purchasing for their agencies. And in May, the OMB released a shared services strategy, noting that agency CIOs will need to “innovate with less,” given the federal government’s current fiscal constraints and growing IT demands.

The new strategy points out that agency CIOs will be pressured to deliver solutions faster and for less money, develop future-ready business and technology architectures, and take advantage of evolving technologies to help agencies work more flexibly, efficiently and effectively.

With this in mind, we thought it appropriate to shine a spotlight on the activities of three of the federal government’s most innovative agency CIOs.

Frank Baitman has only been CIO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for a few months, but he brings a track record of innovation to the post, and according to former Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra, Baitman is “a guy who deserves watching.” Baitman was director of corporate strategy at IBM and helped establish the company’s Life Sciences Unit. He later served for two years as CIO of the Social Security Administration (SSA). He left the SSA in 2011 after a major reorganization and became “entrepreneur in residence” at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before joining the HHS as CIO in February.

Entrepreneur in Residence

“What I did at the FDA was a lot of fun,” he said. “The charge before us was, ‘What can you do to streamline the process for getting innovative medical devices to market?’” Medical devices are becoming increasingly important, Baitman said, but are somewhat under the radar because they are overshadowed by pharmaceuticals. To hasten the process of getting the devices approved, Baitman and four others ramped up the Innovation Pathway 2.0.

“I was one of five members of an entrepreneur-in-residence team selected to work on this.” Baitman said he came in with a strategy and IT background, and other team members brought a range of abilities. A retired general brought leadership skills that enabled the group to get into action quickly. The team had six months to show what it could do.

“One of the things that we did was stress test this Innovation Pathway 2.0,” Baitman said. “So we put out a challenge to a particular disease state, which is something novel for the FDA. We said, ‘There is a disease called ‘end-stage renal disease’ that is a huge and growing public health problem. … More and more people are on dialysis and the prognosis is not good. Fifty percent of Americans with end-stage renal disease die within five years.’”

The FDA asked innovators if there were any medical devices that they’d like to put on the Innovation Pathway. Although there wasn’t a prize or money associated with the initiative, the pathway provided a way for companies to collaborate with the FDA to get their devices into the marketplace more quickly than traditional processes.

“We had our fingers crossed that we would get more than one company coming forward, and we ended up getting 32,” Baitman said. “The FDA selected three inventions that are now on the Innovation Pathway, moving to market. Things like a wearable kidney — really fascinating stuff.”

Baitman said that among supporters of the project were Chopra and Todd Park, who replaced Chopra, as well as the FDA’s Jeff Shuren, head of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

Photo: Frank Baitman, CIO, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

IT played a significant part, as the team needed tools to support a business process that hinged on communication and collaboration. Baitman said the team did a crash course in software development and in eight weeks built a secure online conference center that allows the FDA and device sponsors to interact.

“To make that happen, we went to the cloud. We partnered with Salesforce, and we built a solution that among other things provides really good tracking of information flow between the company and the FDA, and inspires collaboration among FDA reviewers and with their peers in industry. We saw a problem, we came up with a solution — which was Innovation Pathway 2.0 — we stress tested it with the challenge and then we built the tools to enable that new business process to function.”

Health and Human Services

Baitman came into the HHS — as CIO and deputy assistant secretary for IT — aware of the challenges facing him. The agency has a wide range of missions that support public health — from National Institutes of Health research, to FDA regulatory functions, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) public health work, to direct care provided by the Indian Health Service. “One of the challenges is looking out across that enterprise and saying, ‘Where are there common needs so that we can get people working together?” he said.

Working collaboratively is clearly driven by the need to build in efficiencies and save money, but according to Baitman, that’s only the beginning. “Part of the reason for that collaboration is that we can move our mission forward more quickly by sharing information. And that’s where I’m hoping to make a difference.”

To start the process, said Baitman, “We set up a new IT governance process in the agency, and what makes this one a little different than what’s being done elsewhere is we’re looking across the breadth of the agency and asking, ‘Where can we pull people together who are likely to have shared interests?’”

That means consolidating more than a dozen HR systems into one with specialty domains. “It’s going to make the flow of information across the agency so much more streamlined. People are going to be able to see things in the same way and share that information with the same data fields across the agency.”

For example, he said, the FDA, National Institutes of Health and CDC are all focused on science and research. “We’re looking across those operating divisions that care about research to see if there are common things that you do — like sourcing, finding experts in a particular research field.”

The HHS is also taking a page from the FDA entrepreneur-in-residence program by looking for staff to partner with innovators outside the federal government. “You can’t just have internal people, because they’re part of the system and they need the knowledge, the insight and perspective of people who come from outside,” Baitman said. “And you can’t just have outside people, because they don’t understand the organization and how to get things done.” In six months to one year, the idea is “not to produce a slide deck but to actually make something happen.”

Health and IT

Baitman thinks IT is key to health care’s future. “It’s an entirely different way of treating people when that file isn’t locked away in a doctor’s office, but is something you carry around with you,” he said in reference to a mobile health IT project. While Baitman said he was still very new at the HHS, he thinks that mobility and use of the cloud will become essentials to effective health-care IT.

In addition, Baitman said the Affordable Care Act depends heavily on IT. “The health insurance exchanges, for example, are rooted in IT,” he said. “And we’re moving forward building those exchanges so Americans can get access to health insurance. Regardless of whether or not they get that insurance today from their employer or if they don’t have insurance, we want them to have access, and IT underlies so many of the things we hope to deliver.”

-- By Wayne Hanson

Charged with high-profile tasks such as counterterrorism, border protection and battling cyberthreats, it’s a safe bet that technology stability and reliability are two of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) top IT priorities. But the organization also is distinguishing itself as a leader in computing innovation under the guidance of CIO Richard A. Spires.

Like many federal agencies, the DHS is embracing a shift to the cloud and is busy consolidating its data centers and various services. That isn’t novel, as the federal government has been operating under a Cloud First policy for the past couple of years. But some of the services that the DHS is sending to the cloud and things being done are clearly out of the box, particularly for a government entity.

Chief among these new cloud offerings is what Spires called a “workplace-as-a-service” pilot program, which will roll out in a couple of months; the plan is to combine virtual desktop capabilities with mobile technologies and wrap the two under an advanced security model. The total service would be hosted in the DHS’ private cloud.

Theoretically instead of assigning a computer with a standard software package to every employee, users will be broken into class groups and assigned equipment based on their specific needs.

For example, executive users would likely receive a virtual desktop infrastructure terminal on their desk as well as a tablet device and smartphone. In contrast, Transportation Security Administration workers at an airport might only have an account that gains them access to a kiosk from which they can check email.

If the pilot is successful, the virtual desktop-as-a-service model will help the DHS avoid buying and administering hardware and software. Instead, whatever technology is needed will be bought as needed.

“That may not be innovative on the technology front, but I think from the business side of this and trying to simplify that part of commodity IT at DHS, it’s quite innovative,” Spires said.

Spires is no stranger to the IT challenges that exist in the federal government. A veteran federal employee, he held several positions, including CIO, at the IRS from 2004 through 2008. He also has private-sector experience, having served as president and chief operating officer of Matas Inc., a company that provides business intelligence solutions to the financial services industry.

Since Spires became DHS CIO in September 2009, he’s worked to redefine the IT structure of the department. He explained that because of the nature of how the DHS was put together following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, disparate technical systems and various people from separate agencies were combined out of necessity. That resulted in a lot of system duplication, from the business area technical systems to those computing platforms operating on the mission side of the department. And the crossover of employees also posed a challenge.

Photo: Richard Spires, CIO, U.S. Department of Homeland Security

“Trying to integrate this department is difficult in many ways, [but] we’re making progress,” Spires said. “These components bring their own strong cultures and there is nothing wrong with that, but to make DHS what it should be, we need to integrate more functionality, leverage one another and foster the right type of cooperation.”

To achieve that, Spires has emphasized the importance of grouping the department’s major functions. The goal is to establish a governance model that brings together the right executives and personnel from across the DHS to work collectively to figure out how to appropriately mesh together.

The effort is a union of executives, subject-matter experts and enterprise architecture systems meant to help define where the DHS can be in five years in various functional areas and to identify the transition steps necessary to make an efficient governance structure a reality and influence the department’s budget and expenditures in regard to IT.

“I’m not trying to say that it’s unique, but I’ll tell you, for this place, it’s quite a different way in which we have traditionally racked and stacked and come up with our budget process,” Spires said. “And I think it really, truly gets to the core of management integration to drive a one-DHS culture.”

Changing Culture

The culture shift on Spires’ watch at the DHS has just as much to do with people as it does technology. While a lot of government agencies hire outside contractors to cut the cost of having full-time employees, the DHS has taken the opposite approach.

When Spires became CIO, the DHS IT staff comprised 100 federal employees and 1,500 contractors. Since then, the DHS now employs 360 full-time employees and approximately 1,200 contractors.

Spires said he was proud of the change, which he felt was necessary based on the type of work being handled by his team. Simply put, the overall investment in talent has strengthened the organization and given the workforce the ability to excel.

“I think we’ve been able to hire some very good people,” Spires said. “We’ve worked on our mentorship and career development programs to attract people, but also to help people grow in these roles because we’d like to have people stay and grow with DHS. We’ve taken a lot of positive steps to do that.”

Another area of evolution for the DHS IT is its reputation. Spires admitted that the DHS’ technology staff has “not had a good reputation for delivering large-scale IT programs.” But that’s changing.

More than 30,000 users are now using Microsoft SharePoint as a cloud-based service, and DHS employees are using an authentication service that appears on more than 90 applications across the enterprise. So efforts by DHS IT staff are starting to change the way the organization is viewed by its peers.

“I’ve pushed very hard to try to institutionalize better practices, support mechanisms, better governance and oversight of our programs so we can perform better, frankly,” Spires said, adding that the “journey is certainly not done,” but felt the IT staff at the DHS was now structured in a way to foster further improvement as time goes on.

Future Innovation

There are many innovative IT ideas on the DHS table that Spires would like to see come to fruition. One of them is to upgrade how the DHS law enforcement and emergency response personnel communicate in the field.

Traditionally, expensive radio-based technology has been the standard way for emergency communication. But most individuals these days have mobile devices that operate with much more functionality and speed than that equipment, at a fraction of the cost.

But law enforcement users have unique performance requirements that make communication advancement easier said than done. In order to migrate to the 4G and long term evolution (LTE) modern broadband wireless world, Spires said there needs to be no delay when an officer hits a button to talk and various coverage issues also must be resolved.

The CIO explained that in certain parts of the U.S., particularly in the Southwest, coverage simply doesn’t exist to get the kind of service level federal officials would need from the wireless carriers. But Spires believed it’s a solvable problem, particularly if the department can partner with industry to accelerate the movement and ultimately take advantage of the wireless broadband innovations that exist today.

Similar hurdles exist with the concept of BYOD — bring your own device — at the DHS and federal level overall. Spires explained that although he’d love to embrace that movement immediately, there isn’t a sufficient level of cyberprotection to implement it with confidence that sensitive data would be safe.

Although technology innovation at the DHS or the federal government as a whole may seem to some as nonexistent in comparison with the private sector, Spires disagreed. He said that in some ways, government is a leader in technology innovation, particularly in organizations like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that directly invest in exploring new technologies.

But for the DHS and other departments, innovation is at the mercy of federal government operations. “Generally I think because of the nature of collaboration and our budget process perhaps not being as nimble as one would like, those things kind of conspire to slow innovation,” Spires said.

“But when you say innovation, a lot of this is working with the vendor community to … upgrade or offer capabilities that will fit our business model and unique requirements,” he added. “There is a lot of activity we do in our science and technology organization and directly through my office to foster that.”

-- By Brian Heaton

Sophisticated communications are a fundamental tool for modern battlefield troops. But one side effect of technology’s growing role is the fact that batteries carried by U.S. Marine Corps IT troops to operate radios in tactical environments have grown in weight by more than 1,000 percent since 9/11.

Lightening that load on combat soldiers is one of the many challenges facing Brig. Gen. Kevin Nally, who is director of command, control, communications and computers (C4) for the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as the deputy CIO for the Department of the Navy and deputy commanding general of Marine Forces Cyber Command.

Nally’s boss, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, set an energy-efficiency vision in place several years ago. So Nally has sought innovative ways to ensure that Marines in the field can meet energy requirements even as demands increase.

One part of the solution is the Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (GREENS), a portable photovoltaic and battery hybrid system developed for Marines in remote locations. Thanks to GREENS, Marines in Afghanistan now have solar panel systems to power generators and portable batteries, eliminating the need for dangerous battery resupply missions in combat areas. Marines have fewer batteries to carry, so their gear loads are lighter, and they have room for more ammunition, food, water and clothing.

“Our generators are now being powered with solar panels, and that means no fuel resupplies. It saves lives and fuel delivery costs,” Nally said. “They also don’t need generator mechanics, which lightens the tactical footprint. The forward operating bases are quieter at night because you’re not running the generator on diesel fuel or JP8 [jet fuel].”

A High-Level Perspective

Of course, Nally’s duties extend beyond overseeing energy efficiency. As the Marine Corps CIO, he defines and develops appropriate terms and conditions for buying the hardware and software that will connect to the Marine Corps’ enterprise network. And he’s in charge of securing the network anywhere Marines operate, whether it’s a remote unit in Afghanistan or a domestic desktop in an office back home in the United States.

Nally’s office worked with Marine Corps Systems Command and Department of Defense CIO Teri Takai’s office to create a purchasing program for the Navy’s IT equipment. Hewlett-Packard replaces non-Navy Marine Corps intranet hardware and software under the Common Hardware Suite program, so the company handles the transaction if a Navy computer breaks down in the U.S.

But the Marine Corps retains direct control over military equipment in the field, so if a computer breaks down in a mission zone overseas, the Marines remediate that problem directly and likely more quickly than a third-party provider would.

“We do that because of security reasons, because we know we can provide the best security for our networks,” he said. “If the Marines need help with their network or their computers, we provide it faster and more responsively.”

Nally’s currently implementing a data standardization practice to ensure that machines and systems in his network exchange data more easily. He wants to reduce data dependency so personnel can share and access information without too many headaches, whether they’re aboard ship or on shore.

“Anonymity, I think, needs to be eliminated for mission-related, sensitive data applications,” he said. “It must be interlinked when you do a search, a query, compile information or turn it into something usable. Across all our programs, we need better standardization.”

Unfortunately, establishing common data sets across such a vast military enterprise may take longer than Nally would like. Yet he’s accepted the fact that his job comes with unavoidable hurdles, like the time required to get things done, but it’s tough.

“When I need something done, I like it done yesterday,” Nally said.

Wading Through Fog

Nally also started migrating applications and programs to the Marine Corps Enterprise IT Services Center (MCEITS), a hosted computing environment that’s the centerpiece of the Marines’ data center service consolidation strategy.

But don’t call it a cloud. He jokingly coined the phrase “fog computing” last fall after he became fed up with using “cloud computing” as a label for hosted services. He found the term nebulous and confusing, so he had fun with it.

“I stood outside the Pentagon one day and it was a really foggy day with my CTO, Mr. Dave Green, and I said, ‘You know, I’m really sick of the term ‘cloud computing’ because I go to meetings and get different definitions of cloud.’”  

His solution? Just call it a fog. After all, fog is close to the ground, unlike clouds, so people can touch it, just like how people can touch computers in a hosted environment. Apparently the name is catching on.

“I’m going into the DISA [Defense Information Systems Agency] headquarters at Fort Meade and two people said, ‘This fog computing effort, can you explain what this is all about?’ And I said, ‘Right now, it’s a Marine Corps secret. That’s about all I can tell you.’”

Past and Present Achievements

Nally said his current job is the most fascinating and frustrating of his career. But he comes to the CIO post with a wide range of leadership experience. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1981 after graduating from Eastern Kentucky University with a bachelor of science in agronomy and natural resources. Nally spent the 1980s rising through military ranks and beginning IT training, and in 1989, he served as the communications platoon commander in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He held various military positions and received additional IT training over the next two decades, including serving as the commanding officer of the Marine Corps Communication-Electronics School.

Nally came back from his experiences with several honors, including the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with one gold star, the Navy-Marine Corps Commendation Medal with three gold stars, and the Combat Action Ribbon.

He also developed a keen appreciation for the people he works with. “I am blessed with a lot of very intelligent and experienced people that make me look smarter than I am,” he said. “I always put people first, and I try to treat others more importantly than myself, and I think if you do that then people will kind of habitually want to work for you to get the job done.”

As for the future, Nally points to three goals as his legacy. “Whenever I leave this job, I want people to feel good that they were able to work for us; I want a successful transition out of the Navy Marine Corps Intranet into our government-owned, government-operated network; and I want to see MCEITS continually grow.”

-- By Hilton Collins

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.