A key to government performance

Americans have benefited tremendously from Moore’s Law — every year, our laptops and cell phones get more powerful and less expensive.  Today, one can easily get a terabyte of hard disk space on an affordable home desktop computer; as recently as the early 1990s, that same storage capacity would have required millions of dollars and refrigerator-sized machines.

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But when it comes to government performance and technology, Moore’s Law has been tied down by Gordian knots. For too long, habit has outpaced innovation; government has settled for not just old over new but also complacency over efficiency.

President Barack Obama took office with a commitment to break those knots, relying on innovation to make government perform better for the American people. In information technology specifically, one of the most promising areas is cloud computing, which uses the power of distributed, smartly integrated computers to accomplish complex tasks efficiently.

Already, the “cloud” touches our lives daily, most commonly through Web-based e-mail systems, photo and video hosting sites, and online social and professional networks. In all these instances, applications and data are not stored on your desktop or laptop computer, but are housed on servers that can be accessed by any device anywhere.

This is the future of IT, but the cloud’s potential to benefit government has barely been tapped.

For instance, federal agencies operate hundreds of data centers nationwide, each performing the same tasks, such as e-mail, website and file-server hosting. Traditionally, they are expensive to maintain, leave an enormous carbon footprint from high energy consumption, and are the dominant focus for agency IT teams because of the 24/7 operational demands. This antiquated approach underutilizes skilled workers and vital funds, while producing unimpressive results for the American people.

Moving forward, we aim to combine efforts and share infrastructure and services through the cloud. Rather than maintain its own hardware, software, facilities, and related staff, a federal agency can obtain cloud services to realize both cost savings and operational efficiencies, and ultimately to make smarter use of taxpayer dollars.

The slow uptake of cloud computing is just one example of the technology gap between the private and public sectors. This inability to adopt best practices and innovate has resulted in the public’s frustration with a government that seemingly placed a greater priority on process than on results.

In response, the president has named a performance management team that oversees the full array of projects the federal government supports; applies metrics to assess their progress and identify problems; and coordinates scattered efforts to serve shared goals. The administration will work with the Congress to speed up key processes, and will take advantage of new technologies that are less expensive, faster, and produce better results for the American people.

One way we are using technology to help drive a culture of results is by tracking how technology dollars are spent. At the IT Dashboard (http://it.usaspending.gov) launched earlier this year, visitors can track how every technology dollar is spent, whether projects are on time and within budget, and who is responsible for execution.

Already, the dashboard is producing results. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recently froze 45 technology projects that were behind schedule or over budget. The freeze is allowing the VA to determine whether these programs should be continued. This is no trivial matter — the combined budget for these projects is approximately $200 million, with the worst of the bunch 110 percent over budget and 17 months behind schedule. The administration is rolling out these types of tracking systems across the government.

Working together — across agencies, between branches of government, and through best-practice collaborations with the private sector — we can shape a federal government that is more accountable, more collaborative, and more consistent in its delivery of services. Across the government, the challenges grow tougher each day. It is time for the government to join the 21st century and be more agile and adaptive, more responsive and responsible.

Chopra is the federal chief technology officer and Kundra is thefederal chief information officer in the Obama administration.