Tweaking Technology

Chief information officers face tight budgets and apprehension in the push toward public access, data transparency and cloud computing.

It hasn't happened at Internet speed, but federal agencies are turning the corner on using information technology to inform citizens, protect consumers and cut costs. Chief information officers are working to boost transparency of agency operations and make IT systems more efficient, but the transition hasn't always been smooth. E-government has been championed by recent Congresses and advanced by President Obama's call to make government more transparent and accessible to citizens. But now projects are being second-guessed by a new crop of lawmakers, questioned by agency technology managers and endangered by tightening budgets. Caught squarely in the middle of this tug of war, chief information officers are struggling to find common ground.

To many CIOs, the Internet provides unprecedented opportunities to make the government work better for the people it is intended to serve. Consider the Consumer Product Safety Commission. In the decades since CPSC was created in 1973, it has taken numerous consumer complaints and sometimes coroners' findings and medical examiners' reports to compel the agency to issue safety warnings about dangerous products. The commission collected data about electric frying pans that shocked users and toys that injured and even killed children, but that information was not routinely made public.

That rankled many at the commission. "If we have information [about faulty products], we should tell people," says Patrick Weddle, the commission's chief information officer. Now, thanks to a new website, consumers can sound the safety alarm themselves. SaferProducts.gov lets users warn others about faulty products that pose a risk or have caused bodily harm. Since the website went online in March, reports have warned of laptop computers that overheat, power converters that spark and melt, construction scaffolding that collapses, and toys with small parts that fall off and can be swallowed.

Chief of the Year: Information SaferProducts.gov was mandated by the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. The legislation followed a rash of recalls of faulty products, many of them imports, including toys with toxic paint, lead-laced lipstick, deadly pet food and toothpaste spiked with antifreeze ingredients.

Consumer groups applaud the site. "Consumers will no longer be left in the dark about product safety," but will "have access to lifesaving information," Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America, said when the site went online.

"I've been hopeful the database would raise the awareness of the commission" and what it does, Weddle says. It has, although not the way he had hoped.

Business organizations have joined in attempts to block SaferProducts.gov, and they have discovered new allies among conservative Republicans newly elected to the House last fall. The Consumer Electronics Association fought the website, contending that an online database of complaints about faulty products "could unduly alarm consumers." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued that the database would "lead to consumer confusion and give rise to lawsuits based on rumor repeated through the echo chamber of the Internet."

Unlike other consumer websites, SaferProducts.gov does not evaluate or compare products, Weddle says. The site's sole concern is product safety. "We're not looking for people's opinions about how products perform, we're looking for information where someone was injured or killed or there is a risk of harm," he adds. As CPSC Chairwoman Inez Moore Tenenbaum notes, SaferProducts.gov is intended to give consumers "access to product safety information that they have never seen before, and the information will empower them to make safer choices."

Will SaferProducts.gov will be allowed to function that way? "I have no answer to that one," Weddle says. Ultimately that is likely to be a political decision.

Dashboard Lights

Compelled by President Obama's Open Government Directive, CIOs from across the executive branch have developed websites that provide greater access to federal data and insight into spending. But now the websites themselves are in jeopardy as Congress imposes federal budget cuts. A 2010 article in Fast Company magazine proclaimed USAspending.gov was "perfect." Its dashboard of numbers, colorful pie charts and intuitive bar graphs provide "a helpful, easy-to-use tool for citizens to understand where their taxes are spent," the article said.

Ellen Miller could hardly disagree more. The website is "seriously flawed," she told a House subcommittee this spring. Her Sunlight Foundation turned up "over $1.2 trillion worth of misreported spending in 2009 alone," she said.

Since it was launched in December 2007, USAspending has been plentifully praised and roundly disparaged on a fairly regular basis-sometimes by the same people. "It's definitely the direction government should be heading in," says Joe Newman, communications director for the Project on Government Oversight. "But there are definitely some improvements that should be made. The execution hasn't been flawless, but we wouldn't want it to go away." POGO relies on USAspending data when it compiles its annual Federal Contractor Misconduct Database. "Government contract data has come a long way since the days of accessing federal contracting information via the complicated Federal Procurement Data System," POGO general counsel Scott Amey wrote in a letter to the General Services Administration. "We are pleased that the contracting information is more timely and that USAspending is user-friendly.

"That said, POGO has a few concerns," he added, citing "questionable entries" in the website's top 100 contractors list. USAspending was ordered into existence by Congress to serve as "a single, searchable website" of federal government spending. It is intended to provide the public "unprecedented visibility into the expenditure of taxpayer dollars," a White House summary says. Since the site's 2007 debut, the quality of its data has improved, says Craig Jennings, director of federal fiscal policy at OMB Watch, a government monitoring organization. And the quality would improve even more if USAspending were provided with data from the U.S. Treasury rather than from individual agencies, he adds.

Improving USAspending is a laudable goal, but not nearly ambitious enough, according to Newman. POGO wants the federal government to put much more information online in formats that are much more usable. Campaign finance records, for example, are online, but they aren't posted in a format that makes them easy to search. Creating new transparency websites-and even preserving some that already exist-will be a challenge. Annual funding for the existing e-government sites was cut from $34 million to $8 million during the battle in Congress over the fiscal 2011 federal budget.

Transparency advocates were stunned. "We are going to have to make some tough decisions around which systems are going to have to go offline versus what can be supported with $8 million in funds," federal CIO Vivek Kundra said after the cuts were made.

USAspending is required by legislation, so it will remain in operation, Kundra said in late May. Other transparency sites such as Data.gov, Performance.gov and the IT Dashboard are not mandated in law. Even some champion budget-cutters were taken aback by the possible loss of transparency websites. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, vowed to "find a way, and this is a personal pledge, to make sure they are not shut down."

Shifting to the Cloud

With $80 billion being spent by the federal government on information technology each year, budget concerns are not new. In an effort to rein in IT spending, Kundra announced a "cloud first" policy in December 2010. Essentially, Kundra wants agencies to rent IT capability from service providers rather than buy it from hardware vendors.

This means agencies would no longer own and operate their data centers but rather would acquire data center services from outside providers. Instead of buying software, they would buy software services. Agency equipment such as servers would be replaced by hardware owned and operated by a conglomeration of companies referred to collectively as "the cloud."

In a survey released in April by VMware and MeriTalk, 64 percent of federal CIOs said they believe cloud computing will reduce costs and improve services. But moving to the cloud will be a challenge. The two biggest obstacles are budget constraints and security concerns, the CIOs said. Integrating cloud services with traditional IT infrastructure is another hurdle, as are staffing and training. So far, only 15 percent of agencies have moved functions to the cloud and another 20 percent are in the process. Other agencies were still in the planning stages or are studying whether to move at all, according to the survey of 167 IT managers and CIOs.

For the agencies convinced that the cloud has a silver lining, email is often a good place to start. "It's the lowest hanging fruit," says Aileen Black, vice president for government sales at VMware. A fair number of vendors offer cloud-based services, and most managers are familiar with email platforms offered by Internet giants Google and Microsoft. "It's easy to get your head around," she says.

On Dec. 1, the General Services Administration announced it would be the first federal agency to use a cloud-based system for agencywide email. GSA signed a $6.7 million five-year task order for Google's Gmail and other Google applications including Google Docs, spreadsheets and video communication for 17,000 GSA employees.

Not to be outdone, the Agriculture Department announced a week later that it would be the first Cabinet-level agency to move its email to the cloud. That means moving 120,000 employees and contractors to a cloud-based email service provided by Microsoft. The system, like Google's, comes with collaboration tools, including a document sharing application, instant messaging and Web conferencing.

The Interior Department would have beaten both GSA and Agriculture to the cloud except that its decision last fall to use Microsoft email for its 88,000 employees was challenged by Google in court and temporarily halted. The potential for vast earnings from selling cloud-based services to government agencies has ignited intense competition between the two vendors, says Matthew Cain, vice president of research and lead email analyst at the IT research firm Gartner.

The financial lure of the cloud is strong for agencies as well. Agriculture calculates it will lower email costs from $13 per employee per month to less than $8 a month, saving up to $6 million a year, according to Chief Information Officer Christopher Smith.

But the department's gains are more than financial, Smith's office said in a March report. Agriculture is replacing 21 separate email systems operated by various agency branches. According to the report, a single cloud-based system should eliminate problems with sending emails to all employees in a timely fashion, compiling an accurate global contact list of employees, and ensuring that meeting invitations automatically populate recipients' calendars.

Meanwhile at GSA, CIO Casey Coleman says email in the cloud will cost half as much providing email service in-house. GSA plans to offer cloud-based email services to other agencies as well, at $11 per mailbox per month. At that price, agencies would save $1 million for every 7,500 email users, David McClure, associate administrator of GSA's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, told a Senate committee in April. That's 44 percent cheaper than existing on-premise email, he added.

The April survey found 42 percent of CIOs would consider moving email to the cloud. By contrast, only 27 percent said they would consider moving administrative applications or collaboration tools to the cloud. And plans for other cloud-based services diminished from there.

Such hesitation doesn't discourage Smith. "We're seeing the very beginning of this," he says. "I think we will see a continued push toward the cloud." But like other government IT endeavors confronting budget constraints and apprehension about new technology, he says, "progress is likely to come in fits and starts."

William Matthews is a freelance journalist who has covered government and technology in Washington for two decades.

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