White House meets corporate CEOs for ideas on modernizing government

Effort to overcome stagnation of technology starts today

Because too many government information technology systems are rooted in the 1960s and ’70s, the White House is convening a conference today of 50 corporate chief executives with the hope of generating fresh ideas to help modernize government and improve efficiency.

Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients, who has spent 20 years in the private sector, said that “in my seven months as CPO it has become clear to me that one of the biggest challenges we face is the technology gap that exists between the public and private sectors.”

Zients, speaking to reporters before the conference began, said that private sector has taken major leaps in technology in recent decades while the government has stagnated. “We wanted to find out how they did it.”

“We continue to concentrate in government on outdated paper-based processes,” said federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra. “Today is about unearthing the best ideas in the country” on how to move forward.

Although CEOs often are not the most tech-savvy people in their organizations, Zients said that participants in today’s conference come from companies that are leaders in innovation and using technology.

“We’ve picked the right CEOs,” he said.

Participants include Steve Ballmer of Microsoft; Jeff Bewkes from Time Warner; Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo; Shantanu Narayen, Adobe Technology; Craig Newmark, Craigslist; Sal Iannuzzi, Monster.com; Bill McComb, Liz Claiborne, Inc.; Jeff Fettig, Whirlpool; Scott Davis, UPS; Andrea Jung, Avon; Debra Lee, BET Holdings, Inc.; John Riccitiello, Electronic Arts; Chris Hughes, Facebook; Jeffrey Jordan, OpenTable; Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp; Peter Darbee, PG&E Corp.; Ronald Sargent, Staples; Millard Drexler, J.Crew. They will be meeting with departmental deputy secretaries and agency CIOs.

Kundra cited improvements in the use of technology that have been made by the administration during the past year, including the Education Department, which has partnered with the IRS to simplify the student aid application process, and the Customs and Immigration Service, which has developed and online dashboard to let visa applicants track the process of their applications.

“But these are isolated successes,” he said. They are offset by antiquated systems such as the Veterans Administration’s claims processing, which involves moving stacks of manila folders from one desk to another and which eats of months, and the Patent and Trademark Office, which receives 80 percent of its applications electronically, but then prints them out and scans them into a case management system.

One of the purposes of the conference is to prioritize areas with the greatest potential for generating improvement. The effort also is being tied to the budget process. Kundra said that during this year’s budget planning, agencies are being asked to identify three to eight high priority goals for improving mission performance. Many of these will be married to agency technology plans, he said.

The forum was scheduled to open with remarks from President Obama at 1:45 p.m., and then participants will break into focus groups to concentrate on three specific areas:

* Streamlining Government Operations – There will be two break-out sessions on using technology to transform outdated processes. These will be moderated by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn and Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Scott Gould.

* Transforming Customer Service – There will be two break-out sessions on using technology to meaningfully improve customer service, moderated by Deputy the Interior Secretary David Hayes and Deputy Education Secretary Anthony Miller.

* Managing Technology Return on Investment – There will be break-out session on managing the overall IT budget and portfolio moderated by Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew.

The forum will be streamed live at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

Reader Comments

Mon, Jan 25, 2010 William Errico

Dialogues like these are an important step toward identifying practical, cost-effective ways to modernize government systems.

However, in the rush to embrace “modern” technologies we cannot overlook the need to analyze existing environments, test to validate progress, and reuse (where appropriate) proven IT resources. Legacy applications that remain viable within an agency, including COBOL-based applications, don’t have to be a hindrance to progress. They can be an accelerator.

As a company providing application modernization solutions to the federal government, we work closely with numerous agencies that are looking to take advantage of Web-enabled technologies like cloud computing and service oriented architecture (SOA). However, the challenge remains that many agencies still rely on proven, legacy applications that represent minimal cost to operate their systems. On a limited budget, overhauling these applications to work in a Web 2.0 world can seem like an enormous task, requiring huge amounts of funding and years to roll out the project. As a result, many agencies are simply putting modernization on the back burner.

Good news: a solution exists. Instead of rewriting or replacing legacy applications, which can be risky, expensive, and time-consuming, modernizing applications can help government tackle large IT projects by breaking them down into smaller, digestible rollouts. With the proper upfront analysis and testing, agencies can literally pick and choose which critical applications they want to modernize to take advantage of new technologies.

Because application modernization preserves legacy code and business rules, the applications remain unchanged, preserving their inherent value, avoiding interoperability risks, and cutting costs in the here-and-now. It’s a smart approach to tackling ambitious IT goals, saving millions and taking years off the deployment cycle, when compared to a full-out overhaul.

Amazon.com is a perfect example of an enterprise organization that has applied some out-of-the-box thinking in regard to modernization. Most people don’t realize it, but when you go online to order from Amazon, modernized COBOL is driving their business applications. People Soft is another example of an organization that has applied application modernization successfully.

– William Errico, Vice President of Federal Sales and Marketing, Micro Focus

Tue, Jan 19, 2010 Beltway Hack Washingon, DC

It is easy - the private sector reorganized its business processes to match industry best practices that the software is based upon. This lead to a number of business processes being changed and a number of jobs being eliminated. Good luck getting a Fed to change any of their business process - better luck trying to eliminate a Federal job.

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