CIO priorities zero in on cloud, cyber as budget uncertainty looms

Friday - 2/1/2013, 5:09pm EST

Roger Baker, VA CIO, on "In Depth" with Francis Rose

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Federal chief information officers remain concerned with securing their agencies' networks and systems. Cybersecurity ranked first in a list of CIOs priorities in an exclusive survey conducted by Federal News Radio.

Also among CIOs' top priorities were moving back-office or commodity IT systems to the cloud and using IT to ease the budget pressures facing agencies.

Federal News Radio sent the anonymous survey to more than 140 CIOs, deputy CIOs and other senior-level IT managers last month. All told, 24 managers responded (a 16 percent response rate).

Along with their top priorities, agency CIOs are finding ways to leverage technology to reduce costs as they face ongoing budget uncertainty, according to the survey.

Cloud no longer a buzzword

The Obama administration has made securing agency networks and systems and moving back-office IT systems to cloud its top technology priorities over the past four years, so the fact the survey results reflect those priorities may not be all that surprising.

The greater need for cost-savings also dovetails with the cloud push.

Roger Baker

CIOs have identified cloud computing as one area that can lead to greater cost efficiencies, said Roger Baker, assistant secretary of information and technology and CIO of the Veterans Affairs Department in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose

According to the survey, 76 percent of CIOs said email and collaboration tools were at the top of their list to move to the cloud. And many of the CIOs — 45 percent — said they were aiming to move these systems to cloud within the next three months.

Baker said beyond the big-ticket procurements — such as large-scale email-as-a-service awards— cloud has infiltrated other agency initiatives.

"There's a lot of stuff that's been moving to the cloud that just hasn't been making any press," Baker said. For example, VA has moved its entire benefit systems to a cloud platform run outside the agency, he said.

"If you think about the lifecycle of a buzzword, cloud has followed a path rarely seen," he said. The buzz surrounding cloud computing started out strong, he added, before entering a doubt and uncertainty period. Finally, it has really started taking off, he said.

The fact that cloud is often a big cost-saver for the government will cement its place in CIOs' arsenal of tech tools, Baker said.

"We're past the buzzword phase with cloud," Baker said. The popularity of cloud owes to CIOs' desire to constantly increase efficiency and cut costs. Cloud is not simply a buzzword, Baker said "because there is a there there," Baker said.

'Show me the money'

While the results of the survey largely echoed well-known priorities CIOs, what was surprising in the survey results is the optimistic outlook many CIOs have about their IT budgets.

Despite sequestration and the possibility of a lapse in congressional appropriations, more than half of all respondents said they believed their IT budgets would stay the same or even increase in 2013.

And of those who predicted an increase, all of the respondents said they estimate their IT budgets would increase by 10 percent to 20 percent.

However, not all agency CIOs are feeling so bullish about their budgets. Of the CIOs who said they believed their budgets would be cut this year, more than 77 percent said they believed their budgets would suffer a reduction of between 10 percent to 20 percent.

And one thing is clear, many individual CIOs are feeling the budget pressure. "My 2012 IT budget was 15 percent lower than 2011," one official wrote. "2013 budget will be about 15 percent lower than 2012."

Another CIO simply wrote, "Show me the money."

Baker said one of the things he's tried to stress to Capitol Hill appropriators is that IT is an investment. "If you want to be able to reduce costs in the business areas, you've got to be able to increase your investment in automation," he said. "I think if you look at from a return-on-investment standpoint, you may well see some dollars go up from an IT perspective."

And the key to convincing Congress, he added, is delivering systems that help drive efficiencies and reduce costs in the long run.

According to the survey, CIOs are leveraging their offices to help their agencies find cost savings.

With the likely reduced budgets coming, the most popular cost-saving initiatives, according to CIO's choices, were finding efficiencies in IT systems and networks and reducing contracts and contract staff.

Cybersecurity concerns still paramount

As for steps that agencies could take to better improve cybersecurity, most CIOs cited improving workforce training, followed by better patch management and improving how agencies require cybersecurity in acquisitions.

While CIOs nearly unanimously agree that continuous monitoring will make their agencies' networks safer (more than 90 percent of CIOs agreed with that statement), there's still some gaps in their progress to fully implement the definition of monitoring recommended by the Homeland Security Deparment directives.

Forty percent of CIOs said they were more than 75 percent complete in setting up a cohesive continuous monitoring regime. However, 45 percent said they were still less than 50 percent complete in doing so.