Federal Student Aid shifting toward a customer-centric approach to IT

Thursday - 4/10/2014, 1:54pm EDT

Jerry Williams, CIO, FSA

Download mp3

The Office of Federal Student Aid is looking inside to improve customer service to about 14 million students it has as outside clients.

The technology shop is taking one of the first steps in this process.

Jerry Williams, the chief information officer for the Office of Federal Student Aid in the Education Department, said he's trying to change the culture of the IT office by aligning more closely with the business and mission side of the agency.

"We will as part of our fresh look at the technology office in all likelihood establish a customer service office," he said. "Part of this change includes the establishment of customer service representatives, who will work directly with business units in identifying and deploying new solutions. That's very, very different than is currently the case."

Williams said one example of aligning the IT folks more closely with the business programs is the work done around studentaid.ed.gov, which consolidated four websites to make it simpler for citizens to search for federal student aid.

The culture change in the IT office is one Williams' three priorities since he came to FSA from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in April 2013.

This is Williams' first position in a bureau of a relatively small agency. He also worked at the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of the Director for National Intelligence and the Interior Department during his career.

"Clearly, FSA's mission is very focused and there is absolutely the opportunity to hone in and get things done," he said.

The other two focus areas that will improve mission performance are the recompetition of the contract for their virtual data center, and improving the agency's IT management practice to better align with FSA's strategic goals.

Williams said FSA will issue a solicitation this summer to improve its data center. Perot Systems, which Dell bought in 2009, won FSA's current data center contract in 2006 under a $205 million deal. The current task order expires in August.

"The Federal Student Aid Virtual Data Center provides centralized hosting and management of electronic data, computer applications, network administration, and related services," according to a spreadsheet on the Education Department's website. "It is a contractor-owned, contractor-operated hosting facility that provides the infrastructure, equipment, and support services to host approximately 80 FSA applications and 500,000 GB of data. It consists of three mainframes, approximately 600 servers, and 378 databases."

Williams' third priority is around improving IT management.

He's implementing the process improvement methodologies IT Information Library (ITIL) and COBIT.

"They are both focused on very discreet areas. One is the upfront management processes and the other is on the backend relative to how you manage and deliver your infrastructure operations. The hope is that at the end of the day we become far more knowledgeable about how operations are going," Williams said. "We're a highly augmented organization so we have to be able to speak in the standard vernacular of most technologists across the country, public or private. So the hope is that we will get there. On the front end of the process around our management process, it's to give us greater assurance that we are actually able to think through the process of developing and deploying capabilities."

He used a similar approach as CIO of HUD to bring more rigor into the planning and oversight processes. The Government Accountability Office praised HUD's improved internal controls over IT projects.

Williams added some portions of ITIL and COBT will influence the fiscal 2016 budget planning. But, he said, it's a long-term change for FSA.

"It's one thing to get the money to initiate a project or a service. It's another thing to do the appropriate planning and execution of that," he said. "So when I talk about our investment management practices, it's to make sure that relative funds we actually do the things that help us fulfill our mission, clear alignment, things line up with our strategic goals and objectives, and we literally manage risk."

Williams said FSA has a pretty successful record of deploying new IT capabilities, but he wants to refine the process and ensure risk is a major factor in those decisions.

RELATED STORIES:

HUD CIO Jerry Williams takes new job at Education

Feds improve customer service through data analysis

HUD takes three-pronged approach to improve IT projects