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

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, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  | 

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