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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.

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 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 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 fallout nonetheless did have an impact on project management in the White House.

One result from, 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 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 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.


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