Budget Cuts Force Govt Agencies to Adopt New IT Approaches

Ann All
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For about two years during the last decade I was a fan of a show on The Learning Channel called "Trading Spaces." Two sets of neighbors, with the help of a professional interior designer, would redecorate rooms in each other's homes. They'd get two days and $1,000 to do it. The results were wildly mixed, as were the reactions of the folks seeing their rooms for the first time on camera during the so-called "reveals." At some point, the budgets got bigger and the teams got three days instead of two for the projects.


My husband was always scornful of the "creative" approaches employed by some designers to get expensive looks without spending much money. I was more enthusiastic, cheering one designer for fashioning an end table out of a garbage can. (Though even I shuddered when a designer glued moss on a bedroom wall.) I was disappointed when they got bigger budgets as designers then tended to stick to more traditional materials.


I thought the show was a great illustration of how budget restraints can lead to some pretty innovative ideas. This seems to be what is going on at some government agencies. According to a Federal Times article, some agencies are responding to budget cuts by canceling or delaying projects, shifting contracted work back in-house and increasing their use of cloud computing, among other measures.


Earlier this month, federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients said a tight budget "actually helps our efforts to push agencies to be more efficient and more effective." Zients' comments echo those made by Defense Department CIO Teri Takai in April. Takai said a mandate to reduce federal IT spending may spur agencies to adopt standardization, consolidation and other best practices employed by the private sector. Slicing the budget may cut through some of the inter-agency political wrangling that seems to thwart many government efforts to improve efficiency. As Takai told Federal News Radio:

It's actually sometimes easier to make hard decisions when budgets are shrinking, because you don't have the luxury of letting everybody do everything that they always want to do. If you talk about enterprisewide approaches and standardization and consolidation when there's lots of money, you will get no audience. Because everybody's got plenty of money to do exactly what they want to do.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is looking to cloud computing to help it reduce costs. Its CIO Jerry Horton said moving services such as email and storage to the cloud now means the agency will "be able to live a little easier when the cuts come." The cloud factors heavily into the federal IT reform plan championed by former CIO Vivek Kundra, and agencies are moving - albeit slowly - toward migrating some services to the cloud.


The cloud should help agencies cut or at least control their costs and could also create opportunities for new and more innovative ways of doing business, a few of which I mentioned in a post from last summer. Still, there are concerns. In addition to all the usual bugaboos about security and compliance, integration and downtime, David Gewirtz notes in a post for ZDNet that the government hasn't shown much proficiency with the kind of planning, management and oversight necessary to ensure a smooth transition to the cloud.

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