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Government IT's Next Step: Digital Investment

A tight but effective IT budget creates opportunities for new investments in digital government, say government IT leaders at Gartner Symposium.

5 Early Cloud Adopters In Federal Government
5 Early Cloud Adopters In Federal Government
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Run a tight ship in government IT and you will get more opportunities to chart a better course.

Cost optimization done right leads to new opportunities for digital investment, IT leaders from the General Services Administration (GSA), US Air Force, and the City of Omaha, Nebraska, said in a workshop on cost optimization at Gartner Symposium.

"Cost optimization isn't necessarily cost-cutting," said Derek Kruse, CIO for the City of Omaha and Douglas County. Cost cutting and cost controls are powerful tools for establishing credibility, but once you establish credibility, the organizations you serve are likely to give you opportunities to do more exciting and innovative work, he said.

Before his organization could get to that point, it had to become much more transparent about how the technology budget is spent -- including monthly cost accounting briefings for key stakeholders, as well as for the public. "For the first year, it was just torture," he said, but gradually his team was able to establish a pattern in which month after month it was able to demonstrate improvements.

[Making it count: Federal Agencies Struggle To Quantify Data Consolidation Savings.]

Managing costs is important, "but the real benefit is likely to be on the value improvement side," agreed Jerry Mechling, a VP at Gartner Research and a retired lecturer from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Public Policy who studies the impact of networked government services. "To get to that point is very important -- a lot of us are not there yet."

Digital government can make government more efficient, but in areas such as digital services to citizens the benefits may show up elsewhere, such as sparing citizens the need to visit a government office to perform a task they can accomplish online. "In that case, what you're saving is the public's time."

Similar stories of starting with cost control before progressing to more exciting things came from David Shive, associate CIO at the GSA, and David Drake, a senior IT technical advisor to the Air Force and also a consultant to the Department of Defense.

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Drake said that when the stock market took a nosedive in 2008, his team was sharp enough to anticipate the budget cuts that would follow and made some strategic investments before the money dried up. "Our response was to virtualize everything we could," he said, while also instituting a strong IT portfolio management program.

As a result, the Air Force was able to cut the IT budget by 50% and it is able to operate better today than before those changes. Because the IT team anticipated what was coming, "the cuts came before we absolutely had to have them. We just make ourselves more efficient and effective, which is what you should always be striving to do," he said.

At about the same time, he began a push to "win back the mission business," meaning the share of IT directly related to achieving the Air Force's mission rather than to more administrative functions.

Mechling prompted Drake to specify to what extent savings were the result of pushing for greater standardization of technology, and Drake agreed that was a big part of it. However, he cautioned you can easily squander whatever savings you might have achieved by pushing standardization where

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David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and ... View Full Bio

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