Reports: Federal IT Managers Should Look Forward, Not Back

The dynamic world of information technology calls for a future-oriented approach to IT management. However, government agencies too often may be looking backward rather than forward with respect to how they operate IT systems, especially when it comes to investing huge sums of taxpayer money into those resources.

Two recent assessments of government IT make the point. While each report focuses on a different aspect of IT management, the reports reinforce each other in stressing the need for government IT staffs to break with past practices and to deploy resources with a future-oriented approach.

Gartner’s study, “2015 CIO Agenda: A Government Perspective,” issued in January, is based on a worldwide survey of 2,800 IT specialists, including 343 government IT managers at various levels. About half were based in North America.

IDC’s report, “Business Strategy: Crucial Collaboration — 10 Things That Boost Solid CFO-CIO Partnerships in Government,” released late last year, concentrates on U.S. federal government agencies, including references to the Clinger-Cohen Act and various federal IT governance policies.

Externalize and Cooperate

Government IT managers are saddled with — and concentrate too much — on legacy IT systems, according to Rick Howard, public sector research director and co-author of the Gartner report.

Managers should flip from such an inward-looking approach to IT and look at their function from the outside, he suggested. That outside view should include a much better awareness of what citizens or consumers actually want and expect from government in the age of increasing digital and mobile capabilities.

Government agencies, especially those at the federal level, should jettison another somewhat inadvertent legacy — an IT managerial style that perpetuates unnecessary tension between agency chief financial officers and their counterparts on the technology side, agency chief information officers, urges the second report, written by Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights.

Failure to bridge the gap between those two essential components of IT management only leads to unproductive results, he argued.

A Customer Relationship Management View

Government IT managers who let themselves be overly concerned with existing legacy assets are viewing the situation from the wrong direction, Howard contended.

“The burden of legacy technologies in government puts innovation on a path of incremental improvement when agility and quick solution delivery is expected,” he wrote. “To demonstrate ‘digital now, digital first’ leadership in government, CIOs must flip their approach to managing IT from the inside-out perspective of legacy constraints to the outside-in view of citizen experience.”

In essence, government should approach IT development from a customer relationship management point of view.

“The bar is being raised for government performance as other service industries find new ways to please consumers and gain market share, by combining social, mobile, analytics, cloud and data streaming from the Internet of Things to create responsive, personalized and contextually relevant services,” Howard told the E-Commerce Times.

The traditional approach to incrementally enhancing legacy systems — through change order requests, which usually are prioritized and stacked in a growing backlog, or by replacing legacy systems following the long procurement and implementation timelines of “big bang” projects — is not fast enough to keep up with the customer service innovations offered by the private sector, according to Howard.

“Taking an ‘outside-in’ view begins with determining what kind of quality should citizens reasonably expect when they interact with a government program, and then designing digital business processes to deliver a customer or user experience that is on par with what they experience for commercial transactions,” he said. “This requires government CIOs to not be constrained by the limitations of the IT environment they inherited and shift from a ‘legacy-first’ to a ‘digital-first’ mindset.”

Enter the Money Manager

There is a need for government CFOs and CIOs to abandon past adversarial relationships and instead work collaboratively in the IT investment process, the IDC report emphasizes.

That may seem pretty basic, but apparently it’s not.

“In talking with both sides, we got the impression that the CIOs are getting increasing pressure from the CFOs on IT costs,” IDC’s McCarthy told the E-Commerce Times.

Since the federal CFO position was instituted in 1990, CFOs increasingly have gained influence over how investments are analyzed and prioritized, he noted in the IDC report.

“This is particularly true for information technology investment choices, both because of the millions of dollars they represent, and the long-term nature of the investments,” McCarthy said.

At the federal level, the Office of Management and Budget has a significant role in IT management, which naturally introduces the CFO presence in the investment process.

The territory of financial staffs has expanded significantly, to the point that staffs are likely to have conducted their own research on pricing points for IT spending. However, CIOs have complained that financial staffers don’t always understand the technology, McCarthy said.

“If you need to hire people to change configurations or APIs to pick up data to accommodate some cost savings, it actually can cost you money just to get there,” he said.

On the other hand, CIOs are not as tuned in to financial impacts as they should be.

“CIOs seek to improve IT and to deploy reliable information technology solutions that have maximum uptime and robust compatibility with other systems across the enterprise,” McCarthy said.

“While cost is a factor for a CIO, often it takes a backseat to building highly reliable systems that are compatible with other systems,” he explained, “but if the CIO only worries about maintaining or expanding IT systems with minimal regard to budget limits, it could make the CFO’s job of cost control much more difficult.”

Complementary Views

There is a need for collegiality between financial and technical managers, Gartner’s Howard also said.

“The CFO is a key ally of any CIO that wants to help agency leaders or program managers run more efficiently and effectively by using IT to bend the cost curve of government operations or program services,” he observed.

Government IT managers need to be aware of the requirements of the ultimate customer and of the changes in technology driving those requirements, said IDC’s McCarthy — a point made in the Gartner report.

“Serving the needs of citizens is the whole reason that government agencies and government IT systems exist,” he added. “The long-term growth of mobile solutions, smart city investments, and the rapidly scaling Internet of Things are all catalysts that are driving the need for CFOs and CIOs to hold important conversations and to jointly make important IT investment decisions.”

John K. Higgins

John K. Higgins has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2009. His main areas of focus are U.S. government technology issues such as IT contracting, cybersecurity, privacy, cloud technology, big data, and e-commerce regulation. As a freelance journalist and career business writer, he has written for numerous publications, including The Corps Report and Business Week. Email John.

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