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For the Greater Good

At Interior, a CTO Council lets the department's tech gurus collaborate to set IT priorities that benefit all users.

The bureaus and offices within the Interior Department have such unique missions and independent streaks that it's often easy to forget that they're part of a larger organization. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the information technology shops.

"Historically, we have had the problem of folks buying their own technology solutions, and as a result, we have had a hard time maintaining architecture," Interior CIO Hord Tipton says. A lot of redundancies in technology spending and compliance efforts and very little coordination or communication between the entities had been the norm, he says.

To resolve this problem and unify the IT organizations, Tipton and his chief technology officer, Daud Santosa, recently decided to create a CTO Council that would routinely bring together the senior technical chiefs at each of the agency's eight bureaus and four offices. Tipton told the council that its task would be to evaluate and manage technology, develop policy and act as a high-level change management board.

Interior's CTO Council meets by phone conference every Friday and has a face-to-face meeting every quarter. The group reports to the department's IT Management Council, a similar group made up of Interior's CIOs. It is the technical and solutions arm of the department, and helps the IT Management Council gain perspective and scheduling information to make business and strategy decisions, Tipton says.

Under Santosa's leadership, the CTO Council has other hands-on tasks as well. The group oversees the department's Technical Reference Model, a catalog of approved applications and hardware that meet the specifications of Interior's enterprise architecture. CTO Council members also create and direct the work of various technology evaluation teams, or TETs. These teams research and vet new technologies and IT issues for the department. Currently, there are 11 such teams looking at topics ranging from the coming Windows Vista operating system to compliance with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 12 (HSPD-12).

To get an insider's view of how the CTO Council works, Santosa and other members talked with FedTech about the benefits and challenges of the council.

Daud Santosa

CTO, Interior

By working together, the CTO Council "can bring both sides together, the tactical approach and the strategic approach, in our decision-making process," says Santosa, who is the council's leader. "We don't have to be in a reactive mode like we used to be. We can be proactive, looking at the technology and how it can help the mission and the business aspects of the agency."

One of the most valuable aspects is the ability to pool resources and not just for the purpose of getting volume discounts on technology buys. "Rather than every bureau doing their own independent research and development on IPv6 Windows Vista, for example, we put together a team to do that and then they provide best practices for all the bureaus," he says.

Another example is the HSPD-12 pilot. "We knew immediately that this solution was not going to scale," he says. "So by putting together a team to do the research and looking at this issue strategically, we came up with new recommendations on implementation, and we have come up with a new request for proposals to select the right vendors."

The marrying of operations and business requirements is the real role and value of the CTO Council, Santosa says. "Before, we were so focused on the policy, the guidance that was coming in, and there was no way to really look at the issues around implementing that policy. Now, instead of just jumping in and trying to drive, we can look under the hood and say, 'Wait a minute, this is a lot more complex than we anticipated. We need to do this first or it's not going to work down the road.' That's the idea behind the CTO Council."

Photo: Lise Metzger
Craig Littlejohn

Craig Littlejohn

CIO and CTO, Solicitor's Office

Interior has such a decentralized model that "you wind up with lots of opportunities for sub-optimization" of technology, says Littlejohn. The CTO Council brings together all of the CTOs in a frequent and cohesive way and "has accomplished a lot in terms of improving coordination and standardization and reducing redundancies. Everybody is no longer reinventing the same wheel."

As the head of both the technical and business aspects of technology for his organization, Littlejohn says he's grateful that the council provides him with an equal say in technology issues affecting his office and the overall department. That standing has helped him improve day-to-day operations within his organization, he says, including heightening awareness among his staff of departmental goals and strategies and leveraging purchasing agreements that offer value to the Solicitor's Office.

"It's enabled us to have an expanded presence and be more effective in what we're trying to accomplish as an office and in aligning with where the department is going as well."

Photo: Stephen Collector
Randy Brammer

Randy Brammer

CTO and Deputy CIO of Operations,

Bureau of Reclamation

Bringing together all of Interior's CTOs on a regular basis enables collaboration and issue resolution, says Brammer. "It's invaluable. For the first time, we understand what technology leaders in other bureaus and offices are dealing with. I didn't know what they were doing at Minerals Management Service, and they didn't know what we were doing, but I know now, and they know. And I think when you understand what each other's issues are, when something comes up, you can work out those issues to the benefit of everyone, including your own organization."

Brammer says the council is helping Interior's bureaus face a seemingly unlimited barrage of compliance and regulatory requirements involving technology. He cites HSPD-12 as an example. "Alone, we would have been all over the board trying to figure out what it meant and how to deal with implementation, but one of our CTO Council members took it on as a project, did the research and came back and said, 'OK, this is what it really means to us and this is what we have to do.' "

Photo: Lise Metzger
Vonia F. Ashton-Grigsby

Vonia F. Ashton-Grigsby

CTO, Minerals Management Service

In many agencies, technology decisions are made by people without requisite experience and knowledge, but because of the council, that's no longer true at Interior, says Ashton-Grigsby. The CTO Council now drives technology decisions based on sound technical reasoning. "Most, if not all of us, have actual hands-on experience, and so we discuss things from a practical implementation and operational perspective," she explains. "And now we have the support of the CIO, so we're the ones who really have the big say-so in standardizing on technology."

Another benefit is that size no longer matters when it comes to making policy. Previously, Ashton-Grigsby felt that, as a small bureau, the Minerals Management Service was frequently overlooked at the departmental level. "A lot of the technologies and tools were pushed down from the top, and while we might like the technical capability and functionality they offered, we were often constrained by the fact that these solutions required a lot of labor hours to implement and administer, and we just don't have the staff that the larger bureaus do," she explains.

Now, working as a team the CTOs can leverage their agencies' varying experience and easily share lessons learned and best practices. "With the CTO Council in place, the bigger agencies don't run over the smaller agencies. We all have an equal voice, and we work together. We have very frank, open discussions about our needs and concerns, and all of those needs and concerns are taken seriously by everyone on the council."

Photo: Lise Metzger
Jim Wolf

Jim Wolf

CTO, National Park Service

One of the most valuable aspects of the CTO Council is the authority it has to create TETs and subject matter expert teams, says Wolf. "We select a new technology or a new requirement, we commission one of these teams and have them do the research, do the comparisons, do the lab work — the whole nine yards — and then supply those results to the CTO Council," he explains. "The council then takes a look at those results, we review them, we validate their findings and then we make our recommendations to the IT Management Council."

But it's the ability to look at the whole picture that provides the most value to the internal technology operations of individual bureaus and offices. "By working together, we are able to make sure that policies and procedures that work for one bureau do not interfere or have an adverse effect on another bureau," he says, noting that in the past some of the security policies that came down from the department prior to the creation of the CTO Council were intrusive to the Park Service, causing it to request waivers and "jump through a lot of hoops just to continue with our business operations."

By looking at technology in a more holistic, fully cooperative way, "the CTO Council is really enabling the department to move forward to a better future," Wolf says.

Dec 31 2009