U.S. updates IT plan after Obama’s ‘horrible’ comment

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama described federal IT as “horrible,” and on Wednesday, Jeff Zients, the federal chief performance officer, explained why this is the case.

At a gathering of federal IT officials, Zients said the federal government is behind the private sector in realizing productivity gains from its IT investments.

With slides on a screen, Zients pointed to towering private sector productivity gains, in contrast to the government, over a roughly 25-year period. The private sector has seen on average 1.5% gain each year in productivity. “The federal government hasn’t kept up,” Zients said.

Zients said that at least until the mid-1990s the federal government’s productivity gains were only one-third of the private sector. The government then cut the funding used to track productivity gains (a point that drew audience chuckles), but private sector studies show that the government continues to lag behind, he said.

Zients put the best face on the government’s problem. “I think there is a hidden opportunity here — I like to think of it as the federal government’s late mover-advantage,” he said.

A late mover-advantage, he said, is an opportunity to learn what has and what hasn’t worked in other sectors. “Because the government is behind, the potential for the upside is substantial,” Zients said.

Federal IT officials have already embarked on number of efforts to improve federal IT, including data centre consolidations and a shift to cloud services, particularly for services such as email and collaboration.

At this meeting, federal officials also sketched out plans to consolidate some of the government’s 20,000 Web sites, and to shift to self-service to create more IRS-like results in electronic government.

It cost the IRS, for instance, 17 cents to process a tax return filed electronically, which is 5 per cent of the cost of paper processing, said Zients. About 70 per cent of the returns are now filed electronically.

In terms of data centre consolidations, the U.S. plans to close 137 data centers this year, representing 325,000 square-feet in space, said Vivek Kundra , the federal CIO.

The U.S. has more than 2,000 data centres now, and he wants to reduce the number to about 800.

Kundra said the government has identified 950,000 email boxes across 100 email systems that can be moved to the cloud.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now moving 120,000 users’ cloud-based email, including Web conferencing, document collaboration, and instant messaging, under an agreement it announced in December with Microsoft and Dell .

Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture, said that 17,000 employees are already on the cloud-based system, and the department is adding 1,600 people a night to it. The migration is expected to be completed by year-end.

Kundra said he isn’t worried about the security issues raised by the cloud. “The risks are being overly hyped,” said Kundra, pointing to the government’s outsourcing of 4,700 systems to private vendors.

He said the risks with cloud are made case by case, as they are with any deployment.

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