President-Elect Barack Obama Senator Barack Obama, Illinois U.S. Congress public domain image

With the election of Barack Obama as our next president, speculation within the government IT community about the president-elect's IT strategy and, in particular, the choice of chief technology officer (CTO), has grown rampant. While it's refreshing to see a renewed interest in the federal government's IT strategies, a key point is missing from the articles, blogs and reports that have appeared in the media in the weeks leading up the election and in the days that have followed November 4.

In fiscal 2009, the federal government will deliver $300 billion in funds for programs that states must administer and, in many cases, localities actually deliver. Add in Medicaid, and we're talking about $600 billion that will flow from the feds down to state and local government. Embedded in all this money are funds for IT systems that have to be acquired or developed, implemented, maintained and secured by nonfederal agencies and jurisdictions.

Talk to any state or local CIO, and most will tell you that the current system for distributing federal dollars to fund state and local IT systems is flawed at best and completely broken down, according to many.

Speaking before state CIOs at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers' (NASCIO) national conference last September in Milwaukee, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told the audience that the current system creates information silos. "You need greater flexibility," he said. "Washington needs to trust you."

In 2006, NASCIO issued a call for action on this problem, pointing out that "one of the foremost barriers to implementing an enterprise consolidation and shared services environment lies in the often inconsistent application of federal programmatic rules for IT investments by the states. Problematically this inconsistency results in a process by which each state must negotiate how IT investments are applied, culminating in a variety of different interpretations and outcomes."

Two years later, Colorado CIO and NASCIO Director Mike Locatis has taken up the cause for reform as his state works to consolidate its many IT systems and develop platforms for an enterprise architecture that would support shared services. Despite groundbreaking legislation to rework the state's IT systems into a more cohesive and manageable operation, Locatis realizes, based on the experience of other states, that federal guidelines may limit his options and reduce his flexibility to bring about the changes he and Gov. Bill Ritter envision. With the election of a new president, he feels the chances for change are better than ever.

"A new administration gives us a new view and new hope that we can have some improvement in the federal-state-local delivery of these IT programs that are often linked to federal program delivery," he said.

Locatis believes the solution lies in a top-to-bottom overhaul of the existing model for identifying and investing in IT systems that support the increasingly complex services citizens need. It starts with how the feds lead and organize IT, according to Locatis. He points to issues raised by U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del, in the July 2008 Senate Committee Hearings titled The Dismal State of Information Technology Planning in the Federal Government. The hearings highlighted reports published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and various congressional committees that exposed the depth of the problem: For example, 413 major IT projects, worth $25.2 billion, are poorly planned, poorly performing or both, according to a 2008 GAO report.

So what do federal IT failures have to do with state IT investments? "We need to correct that huge portfolio of failing or troubled IT projects and put them back on the right track and then drive some of the great federal enterprise efforts through the programs to state and local governments, so we don't have the feds delivering a litany of disparate projects to state and local government that lack flexibility," Locatis explained.

Tod Newcombe, Editor  |  Editor, Public CIO