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Teri Takai Talks DoD, FirstNet

The CIO looks back at her stint with the Department of Defense and talks about the challenges facing the nationwide communications network for first responders.

Teri Takai left her position as chief information officer for the Department of Defense (DoD) on May 2 after serving since late 2010. Government Technology caught up with Takai to learn about what she accomplished at the DoD, where she’s headed, and what state officials need to know about the communications network now in development by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet).

Upon announcement of Takai’s departure, it was unknown who would replace her and where she would go next. A replacement for Takai has not yet been announced, and Takai says she hasn’t decided where she’s headed, but shared that the timing was right for her to step down as DoD's CIO.

“I think it’s always a hard choice when you’re in a political position to figure out do you stay until the end of the administration or do you pick a time where there’s still an opportunity for the person who comes in after you to have a fair amount of run room,” Takai said. “I had the position for three and a half years, and I felt like we’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit. When I went in, one of my objectives was to really reorganize the organization.”

When Takai took the position of CIO, she had no previous DoD experience. Looking back, she was able to accomplish some of what she wanted to do, while other work remains unfinished. One of her biggest accomplishments, she said, was developing and firmly establishing the “DoD CIO brand” within the organization so that the rest of DoD would know what their role was and where they were positioned in policy decisions.

As for the unfinished work, Takai said that in a large government organization like the DoD, three and a half years simply isn’t enough time to finish every project. “You can only really take them to a certain point and then the next person who comes in with the organizational momentum is what really carries it to completion,” she said. “There’s always a challenge with how long you stay to get things rolling and make sure there’s a good way ahead. You always worry, you know, you want things to continue after you leave, but I felt like from a timing perspective it was a good time to make that transition.”

Takai explained that her office had two main functions. One was to provide the secretary of defense and deputy secretary of defense with advice on how the department’s $37 billion annual technology budget should be spent and ensuring those expenditures align with the organization’s priorities. The other main function, she said, is interacting with other federal agencies on technology projects and advising head DoD officials on how best to proceed. Such programs under the DoD CIO’s oversight include space programs, GPS satellite services, cybersecurity and cyberdefense, IT infrastructure management, and freeing broadcast spectrum for use by the commercial marketplace.

Takai is on the board of directors for FirstNet, a national communications network for first responders, and was appointed for her knowledge of state government. Takai previously served as CIO for California and director and CIO of the Michigan Department of Information Technology. Takai’s departure from the DoD will not impact her involvement with FirstNet, she said, and she will continue lending her expertise in the area of state IT management and acting as liaison to federal government agencies.

In recent weeks, FirstNet has dealt with major management changes, including the resignation of general manager, Bill D’Agostino, the appointment of Ali Afrashteh as chief technology officer and Jim Gwinn as CIO. FirstNet is as an ambitious, but challenging IT project that could streamline how law enforcement and public safety officials communicate with each other using new interoperability standards, but some suspect things are not going as smoothly as officials at FirstNet would like.

Now that FirstNet has hired on its new senior staff and put a strategic plan in place, they are making progress, Takai said. “FirstNet has made an enormous amount of progress in the last year,” she said. “We’re just about to start a process of putting out some RFPs of how we can partner with industry and we’re also starting what we call a state consultation process which will start to collect the next set of information from the states so that we can work with them and how FirstNet can be rolled out in their location.”

FirstNet has several challenges when it comes to getting buy-in from states, according to Takai. For one thing, each state has different individuals and organizations that would be using the network, along with the geographic differences between states. Another big challenge, which FirstNet recently shared with the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), is finding a price point that makes the network viable, but is affordable for a state budget.

“Very often, you have to charge more in the initial stages and the cost goes down with the volume, but we’re not going to be able to do that,” she said. “We’re going to have to be cost effective right from the beginning, because otherwise the states won’t want to come on and there won’t be a real demand signal for the states to use the service. I think that’s our biggest challenge right now is to understand what that cost model would look like.”

Looking back at her time with the DoD, Takai expressed gratitude. “It’s an absolutely, totally dedicated organization and it was such an honor and privilege to be there,” she said. “I will always be enormously grateful to everyone at DoD that I worked with because they were just so instrumental in us being able to work together, to move the information technology agenda forward.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.