Treasury tackles IT reviews in a new way

Thursday - 8/16/2012, 5:16am EDT

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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This story is Part 2 of Federal News Radio's special report Inside TechStat.

The Treasury Department is bucking the trend in how agencies are using the TechStat review process.

Treasury didn't apply TechStat to an IT program in trouble. Instead, it used the tool to improve systems already in good condition — it's three procurement databases.

Treasury Chief Information Officer Robyn East said each of the systems works fine on its own, but they don't work together. She said without that integration it's harder for Treasury to get a complete view of what it's buying.

Robyn East, chief information officer, Treasury Department (CIO.gov)

East decided to apply the TechStat review process to figure out how best to merge the systems. By bringing the CIO, chief acquisition officer (CAO) and other stakeholders together in the analysis session, East said Treasury took the first important step.

After TechStat, East said it was clear consolidating the three systems in the short term wasn't possible. But plenty of opportunities were available to work on other pieces of the puzzle.

"Out of that came some initiatives that will take us forward, that focus on standardizing the data we use, having some standard definitions of procurement data across the those systems, and starting to bring data together out of those various systems so that we can have a more strategic use of the data for decision- making around procurement," East said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. "We have started an enterprise data management program and it's very focused on a more strategic use of data for executive decision making. We have interest in not just procurement data that we can gather from across the department and use strategically, but we are building into a warehouse-like environment other types of data."

She said the warehouse started with human resources data as the foundation and Treasury wants to add financial information too.

Realizing unexpected benefits

Treasury's experience and application of TechStat is much different than most agencies. Many departments use TechStat to bring IT programs back from the brink of failure.

But as agencies get more comfortable using TechStat to improve systems, new and unexpected benefits are becoming more apparent.

"Technology has this amazing ability to lever up in other areas," said Steven VanRoekel, the federal CIO. "It produces efficiencies, productivities and better service to your constituents, customers and employees. In many cases what we are trying to do with TechStat is find savings."

VanRoekel said the Homeland Security Department recently took an immigration system through a second review session and found it could increase the timeline of modules by realizing actual savings.

"They actually had a few citizen-facing components up and running that weren't planned for the next few years," he said. "They could take these components that were probably years away, and lots of risk and lots of dollars away, and when they were delivered the technology would probably be relatively out of date, and bring them forward. TechStat was the way we had an evidence-based, face-to-face discussion about this stuff and was able to redefine it and develop it in a more agile, modular way. It will end up saving money in the out years."

Speeding up change

Treasury, like DHS, used TechStat to initiate change at a quicker rate.

The CIO and CAO offices are leading several of the initiatives. The working groups, created by TechStat, first developed a data dictionary to make sure the agency was using the same procurement terms in a common way.

Paul Sforza, a senior advisor to the Treasury CIO, works on the procurement effort with the CAO's office. He said the working groups also offered a second set of short-term recommendations to improve data management.

"Anyone who is a procurement professional across the enterprise should have a place they could go to to communicate requirements, to collaborate on documents and procurement documents," he said. "Those three investments essentially work toward providing that portal, that business intelligence platform and the movement of the data from the procurement systems into that environment."

East said despite the fact that budget and culture challenges are holding back the consolidation of their three procurement systems, the current efforts are following the right path.

For instance, Sforza said, TechStat brought the CIO and CAO offices closer together so when it's time to merge the three systems, it will be easier.

"Having worked side-by-side for several months on an issue that honestly was a tough issue for the procurement office, the opportunities they have or the issues they deal with are very real," he said. "So having a partner on the IT side who can help them articulate the issue and the value, but also come up with a path forward on how do you begin addressing these issues, I think it really helped in solidifying the relationship between the two organizations."

Additionally, Sforza said the timing was finally right to go down the path of merging procurement systems. He said Treasury tried previously, but the effort fell short.

"There is a bit of a perfect storm in that funding is getting more and more restricted. There is a desire to have more active governance, more involvement between business and IT in looking at where it's spending its money," he said. "So the combination of those things, I think, is enabling the decision making to occur where in the past it might have been more difficult."

Highlighting solutions

DHS' Customs and Border Protection directorate also found the environment ripe for TechStat. CBP put its decade-old Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) program through TechStat in 2010.

"One of the things TechStat does is put you up in lights so people want to see now that you are up in lights, how you will respond," said Linda Jacksta, the executive director of the Cargo Systems Program Office and co-program manager of ACE. "We were able to respond well and through that process, and I think that bodes well for the commitment of CBP and the department."

Jacksta said TechStat showed CBP is committed to fixing ACE over the long term. In fact, she said DHS CIO Richard Spires recently moved ACE to yellow from red on the IT Dashboard in light of its improvements over the last two years.

She added CBP uses TechStat as a management tool to get a fair and unbiased review of the programs' progress from all sides.

Steven VanRoekel, federal chief information officer

"TechStat gives you a healthy opportunity to be objective about where you really stand with the program and what you really need to do to turn it around," Jacksta said. "It can be helpful rather than hurtful. You get out of it what you put into it, so if you go in to it with the right frame of reference and you can be objective about how your program is really fairing and seek counsel of those around you who may have differing opinions, you will fare well."

One criticism of TechStat is it's still a CIO-run tool. But VanRoekel said if CIOs are not receiving cooperation from other parts of the agency, he will step in.

"I've told CIOs in government or other people in government across the communities to make the next one with me and we can make sure that gets conveyed that if the right people are not showing up, let's use my convening power to make that happen," VanRoekel said. "I've had it happen a couple of times. It's been a good way of ensuring accountability on this stuff."

Earlier this year, OMB introduced the next phase of TechStat, called PortfolioStat. VanRoekel said PortfolioStat expands the reviews to analyze agency investments across an entire business function, not just IT.


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