White House plans to leave IT in better shape than it found it

The Obama administration's IT staff plans to keep pushing IT ahead despite the looming election

WASHINGTON -- White House IT transitions have a checkered history. In 2001, some members of President Bill Clinton's outgoing staff were accused of pulling the letter "W" from dozens of keyboards in anticipation of the arrival of George W. Bush. At the end of Bush's two terms in 2009, departing White House staffers left the incoming administration of President Barack Obama with ancient desktops running floppy disk drives.

johnson alissa white house deputy cio

White House Deputy CIO Alissa Johnson.

The 2001 keyboard prank was indefensible, but the out-of-date systems in 2009 were, from a certain perspective, understandable. If history holds true, the White House IT staff will lose interest in new IT projects as the next presidential election nears. That's because they know from experience that an incoming administration -- regardless of party -- may bring its own tech blueprints and shelve existing projects.

Alissa Johnson, deputy CIO in the Executive Office of the President, says a White House IT transition is like the bankruptcy of a startup. It's that disruptive. And the disruption happens every four or eight years. If she can help it, the worst aspects of a presidential IT transition won't repeat themselves in 2016.

Johnson is a presidential appointee, and her job will end with the changeover to a new administration, but the federal IT staff will remain. Her approach in changing IT, and in striving to ensure that a future transition will be less disruptive, has been to encourage White House IT staffers to be more invested in their technology projects.

"If they are championing these ideas, they are going to be better influencers for the next administration," Johnson said. She already credits the staff with progress on various fronts, including mobile and data center strategies. "This is a 'top-down meets bottom-up' approach," said Johnson, who was recently selected as one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2015.

The White House IT department runs unclassified operations, such as WhiteHouse.gov, and manages the systems that support communication with the public. Its responsibilities also include device, desktop and mobile management. The White House Communications Agency, a military unit, handles classified communications.

One issue that all federal agencies have faced during the current administration is how to address the president's expectations for government IT.

Obama complained about the state of government IT almost as soon as he took office, when he was deprived of the use of his BlackBerry. In 2011, he called government IT operations across all agencies "horrible," and that was two years before the Healthcare.gov debacle.

One issue faced by government IT is perception. When compared to the private sector, government IT is seen as a step or two behind in technology adoption. It's a fair assessment, Johnson said, "and I think we should be OK with that."

The White House operates in a fishbowl, and any IT issues it faces may have a broader impact. Johnson prefers to have the private sector be the early adopter, with users  figuring out new technologies, learning from their mistakes and then partnering with government.

This view hasn't made White House IT averse to modernizing operations, and Johnson hopes that the next administration will be pleased with the state of White House technology upon taking office in 2017.

Mobile technology is widely used and White House websites are adaptable to various types of device screens. Telecommuting is now possible and there is a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy for email. Efforts to upgrade technology are ongoing.

Even as the clock begins to wind down on the Obama administration, Johnson said her team is investigating a plan to move from laptops to tablets that can do double-duty as personal computers. This dual use may save money and give people more flexibility, she said.

The White House is also making use of the public cloud. The White House website, including the public petitions feature, is hosted on the Amazon Web Services cloud, and the team uses Salesforce.com tools for CRM, which in White House parlance means "citizen relationship management."

Johnson is also invested in metrics and data that can be used to benchmark IT operations, serve as baselines for improvements and provide proof of business value.

The defining IT issue for the Obama administration was the flawed rollout of the Healthcare.gov site. The White House IT office had no involvement in that project, which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but the Healthcare.gov fallout nonetheless did have an impact on project management in the White House.

One result from Healthcare.gov, Johnson said, was a shift to buying IT services in agile-type sprints, or smaller parts, which gives the IT group the ability to both tweak a contract and to prevent a contract from expanding beyond its scope.

Ray Bjorklund, who heads federal market research firm BirchGrove, said the failure of Healthcare.gov is driving a push for a more flexible way to acquire software systems throughout the government.

Federal acquisition rules that allow for sprint-like purchasing go back to the 1980s, when the government was starting to adopt agile-like development processes, including spiral and evolutionary development. These modular acquisition processes have mostly been glossed over by agencies over the years, said Bjorklund.

In addition to bringing about a change in acquisition practices, Johnson said, the Healthcare.gov problems also served as a reminder of the importance of basic best practices in IT development. As a result, there was a renewed emphasis on quality assurance, the accuracy of documentation and maintenance a configuration management library.

Johnson, who has a Ph.D. in information technology management, believes that each administration should be more technologically agile than the one preceding it, and the way to do that is to foster an entrepreneurial spirit within the staff. That, she said, is the key to ensuring a good transition.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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