Obama: Fixing Federal-State Program Delivery and Related IT Funding Needs High Priority

Government IT community's attention is on President-elect Barack Obama's choice for a chief technology officer, but program delivery needs to be high on the federal IT to-do list.

by / November 12, 2008

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.

Locatis says he supports Obama's push for a CTO, and believes that leadership from the top can help federal-state IT investment flexibility, in part by empowering federal agency CIOs to become involved in how federal programs are delivered to the states. "Clinger-Cohen [the congressional act that created federal CIOs] has buried agency CIOs deep within federal agency organization, where they lack the authority to get involved in delivering programs from the agency down to the state and local level," he explained.

Locatis praised the work of the federal Office of Management and Budget, which has developed an enterprise architecture (EA) and line of business/shared services model used by many of the federal agencies. "These efforts should continue with the new administration" said Locatis. He believes that if federal CIOs can demonstrate to their agency program planners how the flexibility of EA and shared services can help state and local CIOs do their job better, then some of the more restrictive federal guidelines that hamper flexible IT investments could be rolled back.

Currently federal-state IT delivery models vary from program to program with a wide spectrum of results. They range from point solutions that bypass the states altogether -- thus limiting any possibility to create standards and interoperability models that could lower IT costs -- to matched program grants and state agency solutions that limit the use of enterprise architectures, to a few solutions that are either federated or enterprise in their approach, and thus more likely to succeed. In addition, most federal programs discourage the comingling of assets (i.e., hardware, such as servers) and funding between programs at the state level.

"The bottom line is that the current federal program funding approach promotes costly state IT stovepipes," lamented Locatis. He wants to see a shift toward a shared services model that would drive benefits in several directions, from program-specific staff, infrastructure and vendor support agreements to a shared services model that allows the application of proven, cost-effective practices such as server and storage virtualization and enterprise disaster recovery and security functions. This new model would let states utilize enterprise assets consistently across many programs.

More flexibility in how states can spend fed IT dollars would also result in better use of resources, such as cross-trained IT workers, greater adoption of enterprise standards and less operational risk in areas of infrastructure and cyber-security.

Ideally Locatis would like to see some nonfederal CIO involvement during the early planning stages of the Obama administration's most important initiatives, such as universal health care, as well as priorities, such as cyber-security, that are also priorities for the states and that can benefit from federal-state cooperation.

"IT can be a strategic flexibility for the Obama administration to succeed with their programs, but they have to fix it first," he said. Locatis, a member of the 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC) Committee's Technology Advisory Committee, had a front-seat view of the Obama campaign during the Denver DNC week in August. "I was very impressed with the substantive policy discussions and thoughtful planning throughout the campaign and during the convention," he said. "I know this will continue through the transition process."


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO