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Federal CIOs Say Enterprise Architecture Needs Better Business Focus

As the federal government presses ahead with an array of initiatives to cut costs and improve efficiencies throughout its sprawling IT apparatus, agency staff who oversee enterprise architecture must work to align their efforts with the business objectives of their organizations, a panel of federal IT leaders said at a government technology conference yesterday.

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Enterprise architecture, traditionally the province of a narrow silo of the IT department, can no longer operate in a vacuum, says Scott Bernard, who coordinates enterprise architecture initiatives across agencies and departments in his role as federal chief enterprise architect at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

"What I wanted to do when I came in ... was help the community turn a corner and become relevant in the key initiatives that we need in the federal government," Bernard says, who explains that he set a goal to "make sure architecture was relevant, it became more agile, it continued to move to have a more business and more strategy focus."

In May, OMB rolled out its sweeping " Shared Services Strategy" as a blueprint for federal CIOs to identify and consolidate duplicative and wasteful programs, a streamlining effort aimed at breaking down the stovepipes that have arisen as departments, agencies and bureaus have independently developed their own internal systems, applications and infrastructure.

The administration touted the Shared Services Strategy as a path to "improve the return on investment for IT spending, close productivity gaps [and] increase communications with the managing partners and customers of shared services," among other objectives.

Included in that effort was a separate document entitled " The Common Approach to Federal Enterprise Architecture," guidance that "promotes increased levels of mission effectiveness by standardizing the development and use of architectures within and between federal agencies."

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With watchwords like "scalability," "repeatable architecture" and "agility," the common approach document mirrors the broader administration goals of consolidating the $80 billion federal IT infrastructure to cut costs while tapping into technologies like cloud computing and virtualization to generate new efficiencies in service of the larger agency missions.

"It really is an issue of creating all these linkages between architecture and these broader goals, deeper goals and objectives that agencies are trying to reach," says Simon Szykman, CIO at the Department of Commerce.

Szykman's message to an audience heavy with government employees and contractors could well resonate with private-sector CIOs working to integrate their team into the business operations of the company.

"Ask yourselves, is the work that you're doing influencing IT management decisions in your organization and can you clearly link your efforts to measurable outcomes and improvements to the operating groups in mission delivery and capabilities that are being provided and supported by the infrastructure? And if you're not able to answer those questions, then maybe it's time to find ways to answer them or to rethink the kinds of activities that are going on within your organizations," he says.

"Because there are many different ways to be doing architecture, but ultimately if you're not influencing other people's decisions, then I would say the role of architecture [within the organization] is a bit diminished," Szykman says.

He emphasizes that enterprise architecture "shouldn't just be a compliance activity," recalling his experience five years ago when he assumed the role of CIO at Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology, where the evaluation of the efficacy of an enterprise architecture deployment was essentially a check-box exercise.

Richard Spires, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security and vice-chairman of the federal CIO Council, says that he is working to harmonize the segment architectures associated with various processes within the department.

That means bringing together IT staffers on the enterprise architecture side, whose work is often very similar if not outright duplicative, as well as what he refers to as the business and mission personnel, who might never have heard the term "enterprise architecture" but stand to benefit greatly from collaborating with the IT department and articulating their operational goals.

"We're bringing people together that sometimes are doing similar things and have never met each other. For us to really drive the vision of where we need to go with the government and leverage the shared services strategy that Scott [Bernard] talked about, we've got to start to break down these stovepipes," Spires says.

"It takes a good three years to really mature and get that model working in the segment well. But it's worth it. It's truly worth it. Why does it take that long? It doesn't take that long to do the segment architecture work itself," he says. "It takes that long for the cultural change and the bringing people together, particularly when you're working across stovepipes."

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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Read more about government in CIO's Government Drilldown.


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