Sequestration has only highlighted the financial stranglehold that many federal IT executives are forced to address, yet some agency leaders are using these budget-strapped times to jump-start innovation.
In December, MeriTalk surveyed 200 federal managers for its Innovators Anonymous study, released this month (registration required). Sixty-two percent of the respondents said that they had already personally experienced tighter budgets, and 73 percent said their budgets will be lower in 2015, including 19 percent who said their budgets that year will be "much lower." Twelve percent said cuts have been "devastating" to their agency's mission performance, while 58 percent said the cuts have been "significant." Only 4 percent claimed to see no impact on their missions.
With the average agency cut at 16 percent, it's apparent that federal executives must figure out new ways of conducting business, whether it's hiring fewer people, implementing different processes and technologies, finding alternate funding, or all of the above.
Like many private enterprises, federal agencies are in a carrot-and-stick situation. Budgets are being sliced at the same time that customers (constituents and other agencies) are demanding more access to data, 24/7 online availability of forms, and simplified government. All these measures require programming, digitized documents, training, and other investments at a time when 55 percent of those polled have stopped hiring, 51 percent have cut or reduced services, 51 percent have eliminated positions, 29 percent have cut or eliminated capital investments, and 25 percent have increased transaction processing times.
Some might want to run and hide from this litany of gloom and doom. But so-called federal innovators actually view the news as an opportunity to redesign moribund processes. In fact, 20 percent of agency leaders have a bias toward innovation, according to the MeriTalk study, and these executives spend 32 percent of their time getting their agency to operate or consider things differently, compared with 21 percent of the time spent by non-innovators. These innovative professionals also turn to external forces (private industry and other organizations) for ideas 39 percent of the time, versus 23 percent of the time for non-innovators.
What are these executives doing? In many cases, they are using the cloud and virtualization to replace aging, expensive, and underutilized servers. They are embracing the federal government's teleworker mandate, encouraging some employees to work from home and reduce the need for expensive real estate.
There is also consolidation, not only within datacenters, but also among E-Gov Fund initiatives as the federal government reshuffles authority, slashes funding, and revises functions.
Robert Knapp, chief operating officer of NIC (which sponsored the MeriTalk survey), told me some are considering alternate funding sources. His company has built websites, online services, and secure payment processing solutions for more than 3,500 federal, state, and local government agencies in its 20 years of business. Given today's economy, its flexible funding solutions, which provide agencies with online services at no cost to the agencies themselves, are garnering further attention and momentum across all levels of government, he said.
What was nice to see was 33 percent of those innovators are looking for alternative funding models. The traditional budget model is going to struggle. They're looking for other ways to fund services. We've been presented with the opportunity to work in the federal government. Clearly, the sequestration brings a spotlight to it. It's been a proven model for some time.
Back in 2009, NIC reached a deal with the US Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The company created and maintained a new service designed to disseminate commercial drivers' safety performance history as part of pre-employment screening. The motor carrier industry uses the solution to assess drivers' crash and safety violation inspection histories, and it uses a self-funded, transaction-based model. When the service was designed, users were expected to pay $100 per year plus $10 per transaction, as well as additional fees for record requests via fax or mail. Individual drivers who request their own records do not pay any subscription fee.
Under federal law, the FMCSA must give companies electronic access to the crash and inspection data gathered and stored in its Motor Carrier Management Information System for conducting pre-employment screening. Drivers consent to share their crash and inspection data history with potential employers in the commercial motor carrier industry.
Barriers to adoption
One hurdle for the expansion of alternative funding is lack of awareness about these solutions, Knapp said. Educating agency executives, legal departments, and the Office of Management and Budget about alternate funding will make it feasible for more agencies to advance their e-government initiatives. Concerns about security also arise, and Knapp cites NIC's history in the business, its technologies, and governance policies.
It's part of an education process. In those situations, it's as much about looking for specific opportunities -- around mobile, alternative funding, tablets -- not about the specific model. If you can talk to them about a tablet solution, a mobile solution, about providing access to this particular constituency and the fact it's not going to cost their agency anything, then I think you can be an agent of change within the agency.
The no-cost model suits any agency, from local to federal, he said. "Doing more with less is one of the benefits of the no-cost model."
That's something agencies of all sizes must address daily.
— Alison Diana , ThinkerNet Editor, Internet Evolution