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

Patrick Thibodeau | Jan. 5, 2015
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 pulled 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.

The 2001 keyboard prank was indefensible, but the out-of-date systems in 2009 were, from a certain perspective, understandable.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, 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 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."


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