Walking the Talk

Although the Obama administration has given little direction on budgets, managers still can decipher where to put their money.

Just weeks after President Obama released his $3 trillion fiscal 2010 budget proposal on Feb. 26, the Office of Management and Budget directed federal agencies to begin work on their fiscal 2011 budgets. For chief information officers, this is an awkward time because it's unclear where-and how much-the new administration wants to invest in technology.

The Obama administration has been vague about how it will treat initiatives started by the Bush administration. As of January 2009, for example, only 31 percent of federal employees and contractors that require new secure identification cards under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 had received them. And a fiscal 2009 report to Congress on the benefits of President Bush's e-government initiatives listed numerous milestones and goals that agencies had yet to achieve.

Obama likely will support and fund these initiatives at least in part, but the programs received a large chunk of IT funds in previous budgets.

Adding to the challenge, in March the Chief Information Officers Council distributed to agencies OMB guidance detailing how IT staffs should incorporate stimulus funds into Exhibit 53s, a format for reporting IT investments. The council instructed them to begin pulling together fiscal 2011 requests, which are due to OMB in September.

But the new administration has had little time to offer guidance on what information technology projects to favor. Some IT professionals question how agencies will decide what to prioritize, especially given that Obama and his appointees have yet to fill many top management positions. As of late March, Obama had yet to appoint his much-discussed chief technology officer.

His top government IT executive, federal CIO Vivek Kundra, was put on a leave of absence and then reinstated after high-level executives at the District of Columbia's CTO office, which Kundra previously headed, were arrested on bribery charges.

All this leaves career managers, many of whom were hired during the Bush administration, to make decisions on budgets. "For a lot of agencies, the careerist will keep driving" the agenda, says one source with close ties to the Obama administration who asked to remain anonymous. "They're great folks, but they're instinctively going to be good stewards for the previous management's agenda. So you wonder, is this in effect a lost year from a technology standpoint, and if they don't get leadership in the next two months, will 2011 also be stifled."

That's why agencies shouldn't expect a radical change in technology spending this year or next, says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer for the federal marketing consulting firm FedSources. "I can't imagine pushing radical change," he says. "The administration talks about embracing Web 2.0 technologies, but you can't do it by trying to nail a square peg in a round hole. Move too quickly and these new technologies can create turmoil."

Still, Bjorklund argues that enough flexibility in the IT budget exists so agencies can gradually adjust programs to sync up with any new plan the administration issues, even during the current budget cycle.

Federal IT managers, including those careerists, likely will welcome any technology programs Obama might propose, says Alan Balutis, director of the Internet business solutions group at Cisco Systems. "They have to be happy to see the amount of money being put into technology, and with that, comes a responsibility to deliver," he says. "If you're in a senior career position, you're always in tune to being responsive to the policies of the administration. I don't think any agency will be on autopilot."

Obama's fiscal 2010 budget proposal gives hints on administration priorities when it comes to IT investments. The budget overview prioritized investments in energy, health care and education, all of which will influence IT spending, Bjorklund says. So agencies will be looking to invest in green technologies that consume less power, a national health information network that advances electronic medical records, and computers in the classroom and online instruction.

A 60-day review of federal cybersecurity activities ordered by the White House on Feb. 9 and a proposed 21 percent increase in the Homeland Security Department's fiscal 2010 cybersecurity budget indicate that protection of federal networks and information will remain a top priority, he adds, with privacy most likely at the forefront.

Agencies should look to Obama's memo on transparency and open government to glean more hints at the kinds of IT initiatives that could command budget dollars in the short term, says Dan Chenok, senior vice president and general manager with McLean, Va.-based IT solutions provider Pragmatics Inc., and former branch chief for information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

"It's not that career officials are either implicitly or explicitly wedded to the decisions that underlie the IT services" of the previous administration, Chenok says. "They're just not going to want to make policy decisions without guidance, because that's not their job."

In the memo, Obama cites plans to issue a directive that will instruct agencies to make operations more transparent, create a process that allows the public to submit opinions on policy issues and enable collaboration with organizations in the public and private sectors. Agencies that don't consider these priorities of the administration when putting together budget requests for IT "haven't been reading the tea leaves very well," Chenok says.

Balutis predicts an enthusiastic response to an IT agenda that he says will bring cloud computing, collaborative Web 2.0 technologies and grid computing to the forefront, even with the learning curve that comes with these next-generation technologies.

"Why would you not want to be extremely responsive to an administration and president who so clearly values technology? There's a true desire to invest," Balutis says. "There will be challenges with all that needs to be done and the problems this nation faces, but it's an exciting time, too, because agencies are being given the wherewithal and resources to get things done."

Some agencies took a proactive role in preparing for what Obama might ask of them. After the election, State Department CIO Susan Swart and her staff provided the Obama transition team with four initiatives they wanted to pursue: knowledge management, including Web 2.0 technologies; streamlined business services; consolidating IT infrastructure; and cybersecurity.

"We're mission-oriented and spent a good deal of time after the election trying to figure out where the new administration wanted to go," says Kenneth Alms, acting director of enterprise, architecture and planning at State who reports to Swart. "This organization is putting IT as a whole front and center. I can't see anything going on the back burner."

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