Top 15 Government IT Innovators for 2012

Information Week editors selected the Top 15 Government IT Innovators for 2012.  “In government IT, doing more with innovation is the big opportunity. Beyond just cost cutting, government tech teams are coming up with creative ways to offer new and improved services to their internal users and to the public.”

  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – Hastening the screening process for pedestrians entering the U.S. from Mexico.
  • Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System – Developed a decision-support tool called “outcomes-based prescribing,” that lets patients search clinical outcome information based on the experiences of other people with similar medical conditions who live in the same area.  A crowdsourcing component lets patients get feedback on treatment outcomes from other patients.
  • State Department – Their latest internal service is called Corridor, a mix of Facebook and LinkedIn. The professional networking service lets State Department employees publish their credentials and find colleagues with common interests.  This adds to their existing suite of capabilities like Diplopedia and Communities@State.
  • NASA Goddard – The space center has developed a cloud environment inside a 40-foot shipping container that it’s using as a testbed for virtualization, storage, and networking in support of its research.  It has evaluated the open source cloud stacks OpenNebula, OpenStack, and Eucalyptus, and experimented with “cloud brokers,” which are used to switch among cloud services.
  • US Marine Corps – Eliminated 24 of 35 data centers and centralized enterprise IT services in one facility, which now runs at an impressive 75% virtualization level. The benefits include millions of dollars in savings over five years and better visibility into, and control over, its IT infrastructure. The Marine Corps is the first DoD organization to in-source IT operations on such a scale.  The centralization and optimization strategy has improved information sharing and increased tactical agility.
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Lab – Advanced Networking Initiative (ANI) will bring 100-Gbps networking to more than 40 national laboratories and research centers. ANI went into operation last fall as a prototype, connecting supercomputer centers and extending to gateways that serve hundreds of research networks.  The plan calls for ANI to become the next-generation national research network, ESnet5. One demo involved simulating the creation of the universe.
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) – One of the first organizations to come up with a modern mobile strategy that served two key constituencies: its employees and the public. JPL designed capabilities for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. As those devices proliferated, JPL’s mobile app team established an internal app portal, while making other mobile apps available for public consumption in the iTunes store, Android Market, and Windows Azure Marketplace. JPL’s Space Images app alone has been downloaded nearly 1 million times.
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – Transitioned after 50 years of processing tax returns on a weekly schedule to daily.  Their Customer Account Data Engine 2 (CADE 2) system processed more than 1.8 billion transactions and issued 83 million refunds totaling $229 billion. At the core of the system is a relational database that balanced “to the penny” with the agency’s master file. The IRS acted as its own system integrator on the four-year project. Taxpayers now receive refunds faster. And taxpayer information is updated more quickly, which translates into better customer service, including the handling of potential identity theft.
  • Intelligence Community – The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and U.S. intelligence agencies have started work on an enterprise IT strategy that promises vastly improved capabilities at significantly lower costs. The five-year plan aims to replace IT silos with centrally managed platforms and services in areas such as desktops, servers, storage, and networks. Rather than outsource the work to a government contractor, ODNI has asked five intelligence agencies–the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Reconnaissance Office, and National Security Agency–to function as service providers to the 17 organizations that make up the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). The strategy will use data tagging for fine-grained information access and cloud computing for more efficient data processing and storage. If IT centralization works as planned, the IC could shave 25% from its IT budget.
  • Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – Their IT Shared Services Strategy seeks to reduce duplicative IT systems and services by consolidating on shared platforms. Under the plan, the Federal CIO Council will create an online catalog of IT services that are approved for sharing across agencies. The services will be established by organizations designated as “managing partners,” which are also responsible for maintaining contracts with agencies that consume the services. OMB wants federal IT teams to think “shared first” for new requirements.
  • San Diego Sheriff’s Department – Rolled out a data integration platform, called SDFusion, that pulls in data from a dozen databases, including FBI and Department of Motor Vehicles records, arrest warrants, and restraining orders. The system, based on Microsoft’s BizTalk Server, provides data on any person who has had contact with the department and also draws on public records. A mobile version of SDFusion extends those capabilities to data terminals in officers’ cars, as well as to their smartphones and tablets.
  • Cook County, Illinois – Collaborating on a website that serves as a one-stop shop for government data from the region.  Metrochicagodata.org, hosts more than 1,200 data sets in categories such as public safety, health, education, transportation, taxes, and property. Some of the most popular data sets on the site, which is hosted by Socrata, include the names and salaries of city employees in Chicago, a map of crimes in the city, and a guide to police stations.  Last fall they held a contest, called Apps for Metro Chicago, to encourage developers to build apps that incorporate the data. The contest resulted in more than 50 new mobile and Web apps.
  • San Francisco – Making government information and services available, streaming audio and video of legislative meetings, and extending its social media presence to the city’s on-the-go citizenry. It has created a framework for developing mobile apps that’s device-agnostic–not surprising as both iOS developer Apple and Android developer Google are based in the area. The mobile technologies provide fast and easy access to municipal services such as a 311 customer service center at relatively low cost, according to city officials. They say the initiative is the first in a series that will “redefine” how people interact with local government.
  • Santa Monica, California – Deployed an Advanced Traffic Management System, including traffic signal controllers and cameras, to remotely monitor and manage traffic in real time. Ambulances and other public safety vehicles, equipped with transponders, automatically trigger green lights as they rush along major throughways. Buses will get those privileges next, to help them stay on schedule. The city’s parking lots are monitored, and opened or closed as necessary, while electronic signs show drivers the number of available spaces. A website, at parkingspacenow.smgov.net, shows parking availability at local lots. Wi-Fi-equipped parking meters accept payments from credit cards and cellphones. And if drivers get a parking ticket, those can be paid via mobile device, too.
  • New York City – Struck a five-year enterprise license agreement with McAfee that goes beyond antivirus and firewall protection to include encryption, application white-listing, vulnerability management, change control, and mobile device management, implemented in the city’s data centers. The deal will save the city an estimated $18 million and giving the department visibility into the security status of most city agencies and access to threat analysis capabilities.

Reforming an Outmoded Government

Michele Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, had an interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post on Reforming an Outmoded Government.

Federal agencies typically lack the expertise and experience to transform themselves into more effective and affordable enterprises

  • With rising budgets (like the past decade), the focus tends to be on growth, not efficiency
  • Need outside help to assess their strengths and weaknesses, identify the most important avenues for change, and design and implement initiatives that will achieve results
  • Change is hard and often threatening. One person’s efficiency can break another person’s rice bowl.

Successful U.S. companies have fundamentally transformed how they do business

  • Adopted strategies to cope with a more complex, dynamic and uncertain environment
  • Delayering to streamline and empower their organizations
  • Leveraged IT to enhance performance, agility and competitiveness while reducing cost
  • Strategic investments in talent management to improve performance

Read the full piece here.

Jennifer Pahlka: Coding a Better Government

Jennifer Pahlka of Code for America has a brilliant TED discussion. Can government be run like the Internet, permissionless and open? Coder and activist Jennifer Pahlka believes it can — and that apps, built quickly and cheaply, are a powerful new way to connect citizens to their governments — and their neighbors.

The Over Regulation of DoD

The Economist recently published a piece The Over-Regulated America critical of financial and healthcare reform laws that were noble efforts to prevent another crisis, abuse, or skyrocketing costs but imposed a huge burden.  Politics aside, the DoD faces related burdens of over-regulation and would benefit from exploring the author’s recommendations.

America needs a smarter approach to regulation. First, all important rules should be subjected to cost-benefit analysis by an independent watchdog. The results should be made public before the rule is enacted. All big regulations should also come with sunset clauses, so that they expire after, say, ten years unless Congress explicitly re-authorizes them.

More important, rules need to be much simpler. When regulators try to write an all-purpose instruction manual, the truly important dos and don’ts are lost in an ocean of verbiage. Far better to lay down broad goals and prescribe only what is strictly necessary to achieve them. Legislators should pass simple rules, and leave regulators to enforce them.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Ashton Carter in September 2010 as the Under Secretary for Acquisition laid out the Better Buying Power strategy.  It included:

  • Reduce the number of OSD-level reviews to those necessary to support major investment decisions or to uncover and respond to significant program execution issues
  • Eliminate low-value-added statutory processes
  • Reduce by half, the volume and cost of internal and congressional reports
  • Reduce non-value-added overhead imposed on industry

Dr. Carter’s leadership in championing these reforms has been much needed in OSD.  While I haven’t seen any interim progress reports, there is still ample room for improving DoD operations.  The OSD culture will take years to change from an over-regulated mantra to more of a facilitating and guiding approach.  I hope leaders and staffs can see the benefits and are laying the ground work of real reforms within their organizations.

Each new policy, while well intended, is additive to the mountains of policies that organizations struggle to understand, apply, and comply with.  It would be very interesting to see cost benefit analyses and sunset clauses for each major new policy.  The approach would force DoD leaders to assess the true impact, including the cost and energy, of implementing this new policy, and weigh it against the anticipated benefit.  As it takes significant energy, debate, and political power to repeal a bad policy, a sunset clause would limit the long term growth of policy mountains.  If 5-10 years later the policy still has value, it can be reauthorized with any necessary updates based on feedback, effectiveness, and assessment of the current environment.

Similarly, Congress via the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) imposes dozens of new policies on the DoD annually.  As the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores legislation for the economic/budget impact, the GAO could develop and publish a cost-benefit analysis of all proposed defense legislation prior to voting on the NDAA.

The DoD bureaucracy needs to be aggressively simplified and policies streamlined.  While we operate in a very complex enterprise, the over-regulation of DoD has taken a considerable toll in delivering cost efficient, effective, and innovative solutions.