Sequestration gives federal IT a crisis of confidence

Friday - 3/1/2013, 5:44am EST

Steven VanRoekel, federal chief inormation officer, Part 1

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Steven VanRoekel, federal chief information officer, Part 2

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If budget reductions haven't stopped that information technology upgrade or refresh agencies were planning, then the cuts from sequestration most probably will. Technology is one of several back-office functions that agencies need to pay increased scrutiny to as sequestration kick in.

Steven VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer, said the impact of the automatic spending cuts on the technology that supports agency programs will be felt across the government.

Steven VanRoekel, federal chief information officer

"IT is a part of almost everything we do nowadays and from a cut perspective, if you are looking at across the board cuts, there isn't just a category that says IT. It's ingrained in our mission," VanRoekel said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio. "It's ingrained in the way we interface with citizens and how we do the work inside of government. It's thinking about cuts as programs get cut as other things get cut, IT will definitely be swept in that to some degree."

The Office of Management and Budget released guidance Wednesday detailing specific issues agencies should consider as they make cuts because of sequestration, which goes into effect today.

Holistic approach to cuts

VanRoekel said his office has not issued or provided specific guidance around technology spending.

Instead, OMB has tried to give them guidance holistically around sequestration and help them decide what gets cut.

"IT is definitely part of almost all of those things, on the people side, the contracting side, the implementation side, the mission side and everything else," he said. "We've been doing a lot of intense planning with agencies to work through how they are going to manage this stuff."

The most vulnerable programs are those that the agency needs to invest a little to save a lot, such as data center consolidation or commodity IT services.

VanRoekel said the inability to spend a little because of reduced budgets will have a trickledown effect and possibly hurt efficiency savings on the back end by not being able to invest in technology sooner than later.

One example of where this already is happening is in the Navy Department. The service said in February that cuts from sequestration would force it to cancel planned IT network upgrades on eight ships.

VanRoekel said cybersecurity is the one area OMB is placing a lot of emphasis around in reminding agencies to protect funding for it.

"It's much like IT more generally, cyber isn't just its own category, it's a part of everything," VanRoekel said. "It's a scenario where cross-the-board cuts put you on your heels where you can't be proactive, you can't be driving in a proactive direction and working through the evolving threat that exists there."

Decisions on new investments on hold

But even if agencies continue to invest or keep spending at the same rate on cybersecurity, other areas, including administration priorities such as cloud or mobile computing, will suffer.

VanRoekel said two scenarios will happen under sequestration. The first is across the board cuts will impact money available to invest in new technology. The second is the budget uncertainty between sequestration, the expiring continuing resolution on March 27 and what comes next makes it hard for IT managers to decide to invest in new systems to improve citizen services or gain operational efficiencies.

"It's beyond the material aspects of the cut, but the confidence and assurance that money and investment will be there for them to keep their mission ball going forward. Agencies are going to be hurt through this process and the budget uncertainty is a big factor there," he said. "In the last four years, we've done incredible innovation across the federal IT portfolio, and it's a testament to the value of doing that surgical work. What you don't want to see if a mentality in the federal IT landscape of 'I can do less with less, and I just have to manage down my budgets.' I think the budget uncertainty, the broad cuts through sequestration and other things will hopefully not inspire that. But we definitely have a confidence problem out there."

OMB is trying to update some tools to help make these decisions a little easier or at least based on data.

PortfolioStat v2 coming soon

VanRoekel said OMB will release version 2 of PortfolioStat in the coming few months. Launched in August, Portfoliostat gives agencies an approach to look at investments across the agency instead of in the silo of one office or one part of the organization. OMB received strategies from 26 agencies and estimates they will save $2.5 billion over the next three years through this process.

VanRoekel said PortfolioStat will bring together all the stakeholders to decide how best, based on data and priorities, to take the 9 percent cut under sequestration.

"It will definitely be key to the conversations we'll be having with agencies" under sequestration," he said. "Our focus on PortofolioStat is to continue to improve the process, to continue the spirit of sitting down and having face-to-face conversations about how we manage through this stuff. The underlying numbers and guidance can change under PortfolioStat, but the spirit stays the same. A sequestration motion or a full year continuing resolution or anything like that will just change the dialogue under what are the targets we are going after and how do we work through managing our budgets and resources in a way to meet the needs or goals we've set for ourselves."

Version 2 of the approach will include minor changes based on the lessons learned over the last six months.

VanRoekel said one of the biggest differences is bringing the review process earlier in the year.

"One thing we heard from agencies is that they want to use this as a tool to really inform their budget process," he said. "You can expect PortfolioStat v2 rolling out fairly soon."

VanRoekel added the release decision for PortfolioStat will come based on the budget cycle and when, and if, Congress addresses sequestration and the continuing resolution.

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