Feds update IT plan following Obama's 'horrible' comment

U.S. to consolidate some of its 20,000 websites and improve self-help Web services

WASHINGTON -- Last week, President Barack Obama described federal IT as "horrible," and on Wednesday, Jeff Zients, the federal chief performance officer, explained why that's 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.

In a presentation illustrated with slides, Zients noted that the private sector has experienced towering productivity gains over a roughly 25-year period, whereas the government has not. The private sector has seen an average 1.5% gain in productivity each year, and "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's. Government data on productivity gains isn't available beyond that point, because the government cut the funding for productivity tracking at that time (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 a number of efforts to improve federal computer systems, including data center consolidations and a shift to cloud offerings, particularly for services such as email and collaboration.

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

Zients pointed out that it cost the IRS 17 cents to process a tax return filed electronically -- that's 5% of the cost of processing a paper tax return. About 70% of tax returns are filed electronically these days.

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

The U.S. government has more than 2,000 data centers right now, and Kundra wants to reduce that number to about 800.

He 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 to a cloud-based email system that will also handle webconferencing, document collaboration and instant messaging. That effort is part of an agreement between the U.S.D.A. and Microsoft and Dell that was announced in December.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan said that 17,000 U.S.D.A. employees are already on the cloud-based system, and the department is adding 1,600 people to it each night. The migration is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Kundra said he isn't worried about the security issues raised by hosting systems in the cloud. "The risks are being overly hyped," said Kundra, noting that the government had outsourced 4,700 systems to private vendors.

He said the risks associated with cloud computing are assessed on a case-by-case basis, just as risks are assessed in any IT deployment.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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