Federal IT is far from horrible, CIOs say

Wednesday - 5/25/2011, 8:06am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Federal chief information officers say recent comments by President Obama and federal CIO Vivek Kundra that "federal IT is horrible" hurt morale and add to the perception problem that agency technology is behind industry.

Eighty percent of those who responded to a Federal News Radio survey say bashing federal IT is hurtful, while 60 percent say the perception of federal IT is a bigger problem than the technology itself.

"There are plenty of problems, but generalizations are not productive in terms of bringing about change. Focus on specific problems," one respondent wrote, citing OMB's 25 Point Plan as a good example of the desired focus.

Federal News Radio asked 81 CIOs and deputy CIOs to respond to 15 questions after the President and Kundra made remarks about the status of federal IT in mid-April. Of those who responded, three were cabinet level agencies, four were from large non-cabinet agencies and eight were from small agencies. Almost all were career employees and 80 percent have been in their position for more than a year.

In April, President Obama commented federal IT purchasing is horrible. "I'm like, 'Come on guys, I'm the president of the United States. Where's the fancy buttons and stuff, and the big screen comes up?' It doesn't happen," he said in comments picked up by the media when his microphone was left open during an event.

Then Kundra followed with comments to several news publications saying the President is correct, federal IT is horrible.

Kundra's comments about the state of federal IT have been commonplace from Office of Management and Budget officials. Jeff Zients, OMB's deputy director for management, has said many times the state of federal IT is poor.

But the CIOs who work with the technology daily say the administration officials are inaccurate. Sixty percent say they do not agree with the President and Kundra's comments.

"While I believe there is much work to be done, there has also been a great deal of accomplishment toward increased security, reduced costs, risk management and information sharing," wrote one respondent.

Another said, "I believe most projects are run well. There are problems but they are the exceptions. However, because of their notoriety, they become the norm."

Despite the notoriety of failed programs, 60 percent of the respondents rated their agencies good or excellent in how it helps them meet their missions.

One respondent said there are a lot of legacy technology problems to correct.

"Like many agencies, we are transitioning to new technology solutions. But, as a result of poor technology management in the past, there are a number of disparate systems that need to be replaced, retired or integrated into new systems. I have worked at other agencies and have seen similar situations," another respondent wrote.

Comparing federal IT to the private sector brought a mixed reaction. Just more than half of the respondents also say their agency's technology is as good as or better than the private sector.

But 40 percent said their agency's IT is worse than the private sector.

"I have spent most of my career in the private sector. Federal IT advancements seem to lag behind the pace of change in the private sector. It would good to understand the primary root-causes for this," one respondent wrote.

And those root causes are the impetus for OMB's 25-point IT reform plan, as well as what many respondents said kept agencies behind the curve - government processes from procurement to budgeting to oversight.

Roger Baker, the Veterans Affairs Department's CIO and assistant secretary for information and technology, said at a recent TechAmerica event the obstacles agencies face to get IT implemented are a big part of the problem.

"It's all a matter of expectations and reference," Baker said. "What could our great technology folks do if they were allowed to operate with the freedom from an acquisition, HR, from a variety of perspectives that many private sector organizations are allowed to operate from?"

He added that VA is trying to get management out of the way of the folks who are doing the real work.

"We have great IT folks in the federal government. They produce some awesome systems," Baker said. "I think though everyone of them would agree they could do an even better job if we could figure out how to better optimize the processes they have to operate under and the things they use to get their tools done. I think that is what we have to stay focused on as CIOs."