The most interesting fact about the new federal CIO, Tony Scott, is that he owns a Cirrus SR22 airplane. At a half million dollars a copy, the SR22 is popular with enthusiasts and even small commercial operators. It’s faster than a lot of other single-engine planes, and it’s made of modern composite materials. But it’s not in the class of single-engine planes with turbine engines and near-jet speeds. Those start a more than a million dollars.
One more thing. The SR22 has a built in parachute so that should the engine quit, the plane can still make it to the ground with the pilot and passengers in one piece.
All in all, not a bad metaphor for federal information technology. It should be up-to-date, perform well, come in at reasonable cost and have a safe way to bail when projects don’t go right.
Since the appointment, all of the trade media have dutifully trotted out the usual parade of experts, giving their opinions on what the new CIO has to do first, what his agenda should be, what he must accomplish in two years. But the White House was pretty clear about what it wants Scott to do: drive value in IT investments, delivering world-class digital services, and protecting federal IT assets and information. In other words, stopping the billions spent on failures, getting online services up to date, and cybersecurity. Pretty much what federal CIOs and their equivalents going back 20 years have been trying to do.
By the blog accounts, Scott left Microsoft in 2013 amicably. For example, Geekwire‘s Todd Bishop reported at the time that Scott left because of family needs following the death of his father, and because he wanted time to complete his instrument rating for his airplane. One tidbit from that post gives a clue to how Scott might approach his White House job. To wit, dogfooding.
These things can be murky, but Microsoft is apparently where the term, eating your own dogfood, first came into the high technology industry in the 1980s. When one group develops new software, Microsoft employees use it internally to see if it’s any good. The practice continued while Tony Scott was CIO. (Aside: That does raise the question of how in Hades the company felt it was safe to publish Windows 8.)
How could dogfooding help federal IT? Consider how the federal IT market has bifurcated. On one side you find the apps and data people represented by the Presidential Innovation Fellows. This side focuses on the quick developments, using agile techniques and multiple data sources. Example: SmokeFreeGov, which is a web site, app, and Twitter handle all at once. Up the food chain a bit is something like the Labor Department’s Enforcement Database. This pulls information from five databases, each developed separately, so they are more searchable and useful.
On the other side are the traditional large-scale developments driven by program managers that still take years and billions. Case in point: The next generation of electronic health records, torturously pursued by the lumbering Veterans Affairs and Defense Departments. Maybe Scott can help each side adopt what it good about the other. Serving each a little taste of the other would be a great strategy. Send a starry-eyed Fellow over to the VA CIO shop for a few weeks. And send some DOD health functionary over to a few hack sessions.
This wouldn’t be dogfooding in the classic sense, more like giving the dry kibble eaters a taste of canned, and vice versa.
By the way, if you find dogfooding unpalatable, so did Tony Scott. Thanks again to Todd Bishop, we know from the Puget Sound Business Journal back in 2009 that Scott replaced the term dogfooding with ice-creaming. Feds, pick up your spoons.
You know you’ve been covering technology for a long time when your friends’ kids – whom you remember as toddlers – start showing up at conferences you’re wandering through, panels you’re moderating. But that’s what happened to me the other day at a conference on collaboration in Washington. It was designed to match innovative companies with potential federal customers.
For me, it was an unusual event if only because of the mix of casualness and neck-ties – which, by the way, does not correlate with age.
I did run into a few guys I’ve known since my days at Government Computer News in the early 1990s. We joked, this sure isn’t FOSE with the latest copiers on display. It was bracing to see so much earnest brainpower – on both the government and fledgling industry side – talking across traditional boundaries. And a jolting reminder at how much the economy has changed from when I used to cover industries like steel and engineered metal products.
I’m not sure what innovation means exactly. But one of the government people had a pretty good, down-to-earth definition. Dan Doney, the chief innovation officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said it’s finding ways to deal with the new problems you have when the old tools don’t work. Or trying new tools on persistent problems. You can’t put it in a bottle. And you can’t conjure it up at will by shoving people into open workspaces. But you know it when you see it.
Or when you know where to look. The government is learning where to look. That’s why you see so many agencies launching challenges and contests. They’re looking for ideas the bureaucracy can’t solve with the usual ways it does things.
At collaboration, the Energy Department had a table lined with one-page brochures listing challenges it has open. It’s preparing to spend a million dollars on prizes. There’s the Collegiate Wind Competition, for example. They’re not looking for a socialist professor to hold a faculty lounge gabfest, but rather teams of students to design and test a marketable wind turbine. Reading the material, I sense a subtext in this contest. Namely, the current wind turbine industry has problems with reliability, cost, and the fact that without the government forcing it, no sane utility would bother with them.
Another DOE contests has to do with lighting. In conjunction with Ford Motor Company, one seeks ideas for new automotive lighting systems. Another, in partnership with RecoveryPark, is looking for ideas for more efficient agricultural lighting for greenhouses.
I saw an impressive piece of unmanned aerial vehicle innovation. The problem with those whiny quadricopters is battery life. Flying a payload like a GoPro camera or something of similar weight, they just don’t go far enough. And the devices could be a lot more productive if they could operate in swarms. But operation doesn’t scale – one operator, one drone.
That’s according to Brandon Borko and Christopher Vo. They look like my kids age. They are my kids ages. But they’re the CEO and chief technologist, respectively, of a startup called Sentien Robotics. I couldn’t help but ask them how come they weren’t in school that day. But they’re both George Mason University engineering grads. They’ve developed software that can operate, they say, hundreds of drones autonomously, launching fresh machines as the batteries on flying ones fade. Their video showed a sort of drone rack concept, mounted on the back of an F-250. It launches charged drones while the expiring ones fly into a space on the rack. Imagine operating 100 drones with only your driver’s license.
Could you have thought of this? I don’t know what the Sentien system costs, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than the billion dollars the Defense Department would spend to have a systems integrator do it.
I spoke to one 20-something who says he started a company that creates branding narratives. I’m not sure what that even is. But it sounds like something a few government agencies could use.
A young woman from BraveUX described this chic company’s approach to app development, which its web site describes as “clever, clean, gutsy, art-meets-science, polished, , original, avant garde, modern, smart, bold, simplified, definitely not boring, full-bodied, fun, delightful, original, stylish, refined & Brave.” Hardly something you’ll find on the web site of the average federal contractor.
Elephants also exhibited at the conference, hoping to show they, too, can innovate. Booz Allen Hamilton talked about its use of crowd-sourcing platforms like Innocentive and IdeaScale to help agencies get into the innovation groove.
The event itself had one innovation you don’t see much in Washington. It ran on a Friday and Saturday. All those kids innovating don’t think in terms of a 9-5 M-F workweek. My entrée came from Jonathan Aberman, a northern Virginia venture capitalist who specializes in national security market startups locally. I moderated a discussion with him and Doney, but it was on a Friday afternoon. Our theme was that technology innovators have avenues to get their ideas in front of government, even with the procurement process in place.
And the neighbor’s kid? A shout-out to Ben Center, recent grad, now working as investor relations associate at Onevest.
When President Obama deigned to meet with members of the Senior Executive Service and other managers earlier this month, some three thousand of them showed up. Not a lot of new ideas rolled out, but the old “customer service” idea resurfaced. Specifically, the still-to-be-developed idea of giving some sort of award or bonus to SESers whose agencies deliver excellent customer service.
This notion goes back a while. In the George H.W. Bush administration, they called it service-to-the-citizen. That was before online services came along, but the idea of government services equal to what people get from the private sector took hold. Notwithstanding that customer service in many areas of the private sector stinks, the idea has endured. Nowadays, the comparison mostly refers to online, and to some degree, telephone service. My comment on that is, the newest form of customer service, online chat, is something the government ought to explore more. I’ve resolved many a technical issue with neither e-mail (rarely any good) or telephone (it depends) by using chat.
I remember a one-star Army general who retired and went to work for a large software company, working in its federal division. At an editorial retreat I held for one of my magazine staffs, he was a guest speaker. He got a lot of laughs when he said, “I was trained to break up things and kill people! Now I’ve got to learn to delight the customer!”
I’m not sure what “delighting the customer” might mean for services from the government, but the latest online trend seems to be a hybrid of online transactions executed flawlessly, together with what they used to call high touch, individual-to-individual followup. It’s actually not that new. Six or seven years ago I ordered occasional computer parts from CDW, and the e-mail receipt always had the signature of a real person with a direct phone number.
Let me tell you about a really delightful commercial experience I had this month. Having been a four-eyes since the age of six, I’ve bought many a pair of glasses. I did contacts for 30 years, but gave up on them because of the discomfort and the tiresome routine. A couple of years ago I bought three pairs of glasses from a storefront shop — two contrasting styles for daily wear and retro-looking sports glasses for running (think Kareem Abdul Jabbar). The three pairs cost me more than $2,000. The store provided fine services, if you back out the schlep of driving there twice and parking, and waiting in the store for help. Recently lost of of the pairs, Ray-Ban frames, and I realized I couldn’t read a computer screen with any of them. It was affecting my broadcast delivery. I could see closeup and far away, but not that magic 18-24 or so inches.
Having read about the online glasses phenomenon, I decided to risk it. Long story short — the outfit sends customers five pairs to try on. I e-mailed them a picture of my fancy-shop prescription together with a selfie with a credit card held under my nose, pressed against my upper lip. This wan’t the payment system, it was how the retailer could figure out the distance between my pupils, since the credit card is a universal, fixed distance. Get it? The prescription I had was for so-called progressive lenses, bifocals with out the little line in the middle. The optician there extrapolated the single focus prescription.
I felt I was taking a risk, but at only $99 for frames and coated lenses, I felt if was a tolerable risk if the glasses turned out junky. I’d only be out a c-note. The glasses arrived a few days later in the mail. This after a couple of clarifying e-mail exchanges from an actual person at the retailer.
Amazing! They are perfect. All frames, including the fancy designer names, are made in China. These were imitations, privately branded, and as nice as anything in the storefronts. The glasses arrived inside a soft drawstring bag, inside a hard clamshell case. Nothing cheap about them at all, but a third the price I’d have paid at the shop connected to my opthalmologist. Most important, I can see a computer screen finally. I ordered a second pair — this time with only a couple of mouse clicks since their system remembered me. Not only that, the same person with whom I’d corresponded sent me a chocolate bar in the mail — with a handwritten note! of thanks!
For me, that’s the new “delightful” bar for great customer service. The federal government isn’t going to send chocolates. But it can, with the right resources and focus, reach the kind of service that makes people say, “Gosh, that worked out pretty good!”
Cloud computing and mobile computing are somehow mutually re-inforcing trends. But how exactly? One can exist without the other.
I heard a really good answer from Rory Read, the chief executive officer of AMD. Advanced Micro Devices, the perennial No. 2 to Intel in the PC processor market, is in the midst of a bet-the-company strategy change. The PC in the traditional form of a box or a notebook, while not disappearing, has lessened in importance as a platform for innovation. So much energy is going into mobile devices — smart phones, phablets, tablets, and “ultra” this, that and the other with touch screens and solid state drives.
These hardware form factors have been accompanied by a change in the way applications are programmed and architected. Apps exist independently of the data stores they draw from. That means they can synthesize output from lots of data sources from the rows and columns in relational databases to the geographic data that describes the whole world. Increasingly, Read and others believe, that data will be stored in public clouds. Much of it already is when you consider how many organizations offer up their information to be available to apps.
Including, of course, federal agencies. At Federal News Radio we’ve reported for year about the galaxy of policies and initiatives the Obama administration has launched around open data, open government and data as a valuable commodity. Lord knows few organizations churn out as much data as the U.S. federal government.
Read said, “The cloud changes everything. It dis-intermediates the device from the data.” The mobile device also re-integrates unlike data or data from multiple sources via the apps and displays it on a high-resolution screen. So you’ve potentially got a high degree of both numerical and graphics processing required at once — rows and columns type computing and visually intensive. How that happens inside a mobile devices is largely a function of the microprocessor architecture. It’s fundamentally different from the x86 architecture found in most PCs and servers for the past umpty ump years. Read freely acknowledges that Intel missed the mobility movement with its chips. And because AMD was so focused on going toe-to-toe with Intel, it too missed mobility.
An irony is that the ARM chip architecture so widely used on the hundreds of millions of mobile devices sold each year actually predates that of the first Intel 8086 of the original 1982 IBM PC.
For some time, analysts have been predicting that the mobile ARM architecture is headed upstream to the cloud data center itself. Read said AMD is actively working to make that happen. He reiterated AMD’s “APU”, or accelerated processing unit, approach in which a compute-optimized and graphics-optimized process is fabricated on a single chip incorporating up to 32 cores. It’s coupled with a set of application programming interfaces called HSA, or heterogeneous system architecture. The HSA lets programmers create applications that use either or both processing styles for today’s apps that call on disparate data types. AMD executes this now in the x86 architecture; it’s the chip, Read pointed out, in the latest X-Box One and PS-4 game stations. Gaming, he says, very much represents where computing is headed — online, a mixture of locally cached and cloud data and lots of computing and graphics.
Read said AMD is sampling to OEMs an ARM architecture version of the APU-HSA combo. He said he’s confident it will help enable a new generation of cloud computing servers that reduce the physical foot print of a unit of cloud power by two-thirds, and power consumption by three-fourths. The HP Moonshot server exemplifies this coming approach, Read said. The cloud of the future will handle larger workloads and a higher density of virtual machines per server, yet with less space and power consumption.
“The huge data center firms, the Rackspaces, Amazons, Googles, they’re all reaching big space, power and performance problems,” Read said. The new style of cloud-tuned servers “link low power server chips together to transform the data center.” Moreover, Read said, the integration of numbers and graphics processing, low power, dis-intermediation between application and data sources, and data streaming from the cloud will become the norm in not just in gaming but also in military and civilian systems.
Since childhood I’ve loved horror movies. In “The Haunting of Hill House” one of the characters comments on the fact that the house has no perfect right angles. She posits that if you take all of the slightly off corners and not-quite-straight lines, “the house adds up to one big distortion as a whole!” Or something like that. How I remember that line from a 1963 movie I have no idea, but it reminds me of federal finance. And the fact that despite the billions in sunk investments in systems, financial processes are such that when you add up all the layers, it takes something akin to archaeology for a citizen to unearth a specific fact about where and how money was spent.
The government has made a lot of progress cleaning up its books. At the recent Association of Government Accountants training conference, I caught up with Comptroller General Gene Dodaro. He acknowledged that all the agencies operating under the Chief Financial Officers Act except for Defense have achieved unqualified audits. In DOD, the Marine Corps is the first of the armed services to get there, but the greater Navy, Army and Air Force still have a couple of years to go.
Where things get out of kilter is in the broken relationships among core financial systems and the various other systems that support procurement, disbursements, and programs. This may be why, as one Pentagon manager points out, program people often don’t really know the cost bases of what they do. Getting auditability and traceability of your cash accounting doesn’t necessarily equate to sound management.
It came to mind late last year when Reuters published a report on vast and tangled financial reconciliation distortions that occur monthly between the Navy, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service and the Treasury. So little of it matches that DFAS employees make up numbers to force everything to square up.
Recently on the Federal Drive, the Government Accountability Office’s Stan Czerwinski, the director strategic issues, noted how well accounted for the money spent on the 2009 stimulus was. He contrasted it with the relative opaqueness of USAspending.gov. It’s easy to get lost trying to figure out what’s going on. How ironic is that? Even with all those unqualified audit opinions, it’s still nearly impossible to find specific information about, say, how many dollars were spent with a particular contractor, or in which zip codes money went.
Like the fabled Hill House, federal spending has so many formats, data elements and definitions, that when you add it all up it’s almost impossible to decipher. Federal financial systems have their own internal logic and produce assurance that convinces auditors that everything is square. But they have no real connection to USAspending.gov.
Czerwinski noted that strong central control over the site and support from top leadership helped recovery.gov work. That is, a strong governance structure is required before agencies can decide on formats and data elements. USAspending.gov lacks that clear governance and authority structure. Federal financial people don’t live and die by what’s in it, so they don’t pay that much attention to it.
That’s why the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act is so promising. It’s been knocking around for a year. The House passed a version. But now the White House has sent the Senate a marked version that waters down the requirement that the financial systems be established as the source of spending information. The markup, as reported by Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller, puts the Treasury and the White House into the mix of authorities the act would establish to set standards and define data elements. It potentially spoils the idea of uniformity across government.
Equally promising are new rules for grant spending, which outweighs contract spending. The new approach sweeps away several old OMB circulars and forces agencies to unify how they account for and report grant spending. It comes from the same White House that is trying to alter the DATA Act.
The concept is simple. Builders and suppliers mean the same universal thing when they say #2 x 4″, “T-square” or “5D nail”. In the domain of federal expenditures, it’s time to make data uniform across the whole enterprise.
The big difference between the failure of healthcare.gov and all other federal IT development failures is this: Establishment of the site was inseparable from the law underlying it. There is no manual healthcare plan exchange. By contrast, failure to automate VA disability case processing or Office of Personnel Management retirement annuity calculations didn’t stop those activities the automation was supposed to support. They existed long before attempts to automate them. The fallback therefore consisted of using the existing process, maybe adding people in a surge to clear backlogs. That option doesn’t exist for healthcare.gov. But, as we’ve seen with the almost inane, and probably illegal, on-the-fly rewrites of the ACA’s requirements and deadlines, the online exchanges have no real fallback possibility.
In all other respects, healthcare.gov was like other failed systems, the result of boiling a toxic stew of poorly defined requirements, the wrong contractor, insufficient oversight and unclear lines of authority. Moreover, healthcare.gov was what used to be called, disparagingly, a “grand design.” The antitheses of agile, spiral development, healthcare.gov is the result of planners trying to spawn a nearly impossibly complicated system all at once. That approach has never worked and it never will.
There’s nothing in the Federal Acquisition Regulation that caused this system failure. That is, it wasn’t a procurement failure, as I’ve written before. And there’s nothing in, say, the proposed Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act that would necessarily prevent it. Thinking, sound management, following the rules already there — that is how these things can be kept from happening.
I say all of this as prelude to what I hope will come ahead in 2014 for federal IT. And hoping the lessons learned will be the correct ones. Because there’s no doubt that healthcare.gov was the biggest federal IT story of 2013. It is the Obama administration’s Hurricane Katrina.
Lots of published lists of technology predictions have already hit. Many analysts think Google Glass will be a big deal. I have a personal vow never to have a conversation or any other engagement with anyone wearing them. Anyway, I think they’ll end up being the Nehru jacket of technology — a few nerds will sport them for a while. Others are hoping for flexible smart phones. Forgiving him the Google Glass reference, I think Bob Gourley’s tech product trends as published in Federal Times is otherwise a pretty good list.
Here’s what I’m hoping to see more of in the government IT market in the coming year. I warn you, no glamor or drama.
- Rational cybersecurity. If healthcare.gov was the biggest story, the next biggest, or maybe bigger, story was the Edward Snowden drama. Savior of freedom or traitor, he certainly was the ultimate insider threat-turned-real. A group of Chinese government IT people I spoke to recently pointedly asked what changes in procedures had been instituted since Snowden. The episode brings together the need for continuous monitoring, ID management and specific procedures to prevent anyone from mass downloadings, even if it’s the Director of National Security.
- Get mobility right. Let go of the BYOD idea. It only works in the public sector if a narrow set of devices is allowed and the agency has access to and control of the devices. Might as well be government-furnished. And let go of the notion that the “desktop” PC is dead. Pick the right device for the right situation. The hard part is software. Making applications mobile and fixed, and managing the licenses are the two hardest tasks.
- Rightsize infrastructure. Really and actually find ways to boost interagency services sharing so the net spending on data center elements at least stops growing. Data center consolidation efforts have been going on for 20 years. It’s time to get serious about it.
- Become a model for the post-password world. Time’s up. Everybody out of the password pool and go join ID management of the 21st century.
- Become the Dominique Dawes of development. Agile, that is. Postulate every development project as if it was the final vault in the ’84 Olympics. Nail it then smile. It’s more than a matter of using this development library or that project management scheme. It’s a whole approach that starts with thinking and visualizing the end — then being the toughest S.O.B. there is when it comes to testing and requirements.
Mobile app puts biz-dev in your hand
Sometimes good things do come in small packages. I’ve been intrigued by an iPhone app called Hord, pronounced hoard. The publisher, startup GovTribe, spells it with the “o” adorned by an overline — a character unavailable in WordPress. Hord is an example of using government data to build apps, but not quite in the way the Obama administration has been pushing. The app is free; the service will cost $5 per month after a user tries it for 30 days. So Hord is not in the price league of Bloomberg, Deltek or Govini.
It’s also not a comprehensive environment with consulting and a large and growing database to consult. What it is, is a way of getting instant delivery of changes in solicitations from specific agencies or specific product categories. In later versions, company co-founder Nate Nash told me, users will be able to look for specific product solicitations from specific agencies, for example, “mobile technology” from “Agriculture Department.”
Hord pulls data from the Government Accountability Office, General Services Administration, System for Award Management (SAM) and USASpending.gov. You pick the agencies and categories you want to “hoard” and then receive automatic push notifications when anything changes. One new item tells me the Coast Guard Surface Forces Logistics Center is requesting quotes for a bunch of diesel engine parts, that it has added a small business requirement, and that it was posted by Erika R. Wallace. It even give me Ms. Wallace’s e-mail address and phone number. Other feeds track awards and protests, and you can even see which hords are popular.
As an app, Hord is fast and sylish, a total mobile conception. Nash said GovTribe will issue a web version for the office later on.
Why Healthcare.gov still isn’t fixed
If you read the 8-page fix-it report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, you could be fooled into thinking, “Gee, job done!” But look carefully and you’ll find claims that are hard to verify and others that don’t point to a business-grade level of Web site operation.
In particular, I note that as of Sunday, CMS was claiming 95.1% availability. That translates to nearly a day and a half per month of downtime. A CIO responsible for a high-activity commercial site would be canned for that level of performance if it lasted very long. Most strive for the “five nines” level of availability, which translates to 5 minutes of downtime per year. 99% uptime means three and a half days down per year.
CMS is claiming a 4x “registration throughput” improvement, 3x “database throughout” improvement, and 2x “capacity” increase — together with 5x network throughput improvement. Taking the agency at its word, the bottleneck would therefore be “capacity.” Consistent with the weakest-link theory, even with a 10x network throughout increase, users will only see improvement as extensive as the smallest improvement. For a site that was down nearly half the time and slow when it was operating, a 2x limiter on performance doesn’t sound like a triumph.
The whole episode calls into question President Obama’s belief that the failure of healthcare.gov’s launch was connected to the government’s inefficiency at IT procurement. Procurement is a popular canard. Sometimes it really is the problem. But not in this case. The awards to contractors were made in reasonable time using an existing multiple-award vehicle in place at CMS. The technologies used are neither exotic nor out of date as a result of slow procurement. It looks to me like a matter of pure project management, or lack thereof.
CMS cites twice-a-day “standup war room” meetings. It says “the team is operating with private sector velocity and effectiveness” with “clear accountability and decision-making.” Well, okay. The report shows things going in the right direction. But it deepens the mystery of what was going on since March 2010 when the Affordable Care Act became law.