October, 2016
Sunday, April, 1, 2012
Learning to Share
Tags: shared services
Posted By Joseph Klimavicz, CIO, NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been using a shared approach to information technology (IT) service delivery for a long time. Early on NOAA recognized and pursued this opportunity to reduce cost and improve services because the agency’s budget has always been tight and its IT is decentralized and vast. Sharing IT services is important, and has provided benefits and challenges for NOAA.

What’s the big deal about sharing?

A shared service is a function or capability that is provided by one organization to multiple organizations. Intra-agency shared services are within a department (in our case, the Department of Commerce), and inter-agency shared services are shared across departments. I consider cloud solutions to be a form of shared IT services.

Although shared IT services are not new, they are an increasingly important part of the federal-wide effort to reduce waste and resources. One of my early assignments was to develop software on a shared IBM mainframe—employees from across the country would access one computer. NOAA has been sharing IT services between subordinate units for many years. What is new today is ubiquitous access to shared IT services through mature technology such as virtualized servers, cloud-based applications, object reuse, security controls, and continuous monitoring.

And the impetus for more sharing is coming from the top down. More than a year ago, OMB highlighted an action item in the December 2010 IT Reform Agenda and released a new policy detailing the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) to encourage more sharing. This policy provided federal agencies with a standardized set of security controls for authorizing cloud-computing services in December 2011.

CIOs play a key role. They are accountable for working with agency leadership and program managers in lowering operational costs, reducing the number of wasteful duplicative IT systems, terminating and turning around troubled projects, and delivering meaningful functionality at a faster rate.

CIOs are also key players in the design and implementation of shared service initiatives, and need to be change agents in the transition to shared IT services. CIOs must consider the enterprise’s capacity for change, and need to bring a unique cross-organizational perspective that can help identify commonalities and redundancies and assist program managers in working with other organizations within their departments or across agencies. In accordance with OMB policy, agency CIOs must show preference for shared IT services, as a provider or consumer, instead of standing up separate independent services.  

What Sharing Can Do

Given the decreasing budgets, expanding performance requirements, and rising customer expectations, federal agencies must find ways to do more with less. Sharing IT services can be a powerful approach to reducing cost, increasing quality, and quickly delivering new capabilities. Widespread adoption of this approach will help bring standardization across the federal government and enable it to be leaner, more agile, and more efficient. Here are a few ways: 

  • Shared IT service providers will reduce development and maintenance costs by leveraging consistent standards that enable communication, data sharing, and function use across all agencies.
  • A government-wide shared services catalog will help agencies discover available services and decrease investments in redundant services.
  • Sharing services realizes economies of scale and scope, develops higher levels of capability and innovation, and promotes process standardization. It also allows organizations to give greater management focus to the mission and spend less time on infrastructure.

How NOAA Gets It Done

NOAAs shared IT services strategy mirrors the federal strategy. Our overall strategy is to consolidate commodity IT services as building blocks to support more complex shared IT services. Activities build upon one another, starting locally and moving to larger NOAA-wide communities—moving up the value chain to mission areas where inter-agency shared IT services have the potential to create far greater cost efficiencies.

This crawl, walk, run approach to complex implementations allows NOAA to gain proficiency in low risk areas that represent “low hanging fruit.”  In parallel, we have been working with managing partners from several Lines of Business to take advantage of more robust inter-agency and mission-focused services. We are supporting the Department of Commerce by opening our shared services to the entire department, and we look for existing commodity IT contracts before creating new ones.

Agencies looking to use the shared services strategy will need to develop a communication/marketing strategy to encourage the use of shared IT services and document success stories. They will also need an implementation guide to document standards and best practices, a training plan, and incentives or awards to encourage the “pull” from consumers instead of relying on the “push” from providers.

NOAA Shared IT Services

We have already adopted varying degrees of shared IT services across NOAA. Some of those initiatives are:  

  • NOAALink. An innovative and strategic IT program office and acquisition vehicle offering NOAA's IT organizations a broad range of cost-effective, enterprise-wide IT solutions while increasing transparency for IT service delivery, and supporting NOAA's technology, contracting, and financial goals. 
  • Consolidated Service Desk. A multi-year phased approach to establishing a consolidated single NOAA-wide service desk under NOAALink. 
  • Enterprise-Wide IT Security Assessment and Authorization. A multi-year phased approach to establishing enterprise-wide standards for various components of the risk management framework, and aggregating requirements for cyber security controls assessments under NOAALink to eliminate redundancy and inconsistency in processes, procedures, and risk analysis. 
  • Security Operations Center. Our cyber security nerve center provides security monitoring and management covering NOAA investments, some DOC units, and is expandable to other DOC bureaus. 
  • Unified Messaging Service. A Google Apps for Government solution providing a common platform for email, calendar, collaboration, and information sharing including (but not limited to): Gmail, Talk, Groups, Calendar, Docs, Sites, Video, and Postini. 
  • Geospatial Platform.  NOAA and Census are working with other federal agencies under the auspices of the Geospatial Line of Business to develop the Federal Geospatial Platform. The Geospatial Platform is a managed portfolio of common geospatial data, services, and applications contributed and administered by authoritative sources and hosted on a shared, cloud-based infrastructure. 
  • N-Wave. N-Wave is NOAA's research network built on partnerships between NOAA and the Academic and State research network communities, connecting researchers to the data and resources needed to advance environmental science. 
  • Institutional Repository. Holds Deepwater Horizon-related publications for perpetual access on the web, and managed by the NOAA Central Library. 
  • Research High Performance Computing. Provides leadership computing to support advances in environmental modeling capabilities at NOAA and other federal agencies.
  • VOIP Telephone System. NOAA's VOIP cloud service utilizing modern VOIP technology and providing advanced capabilities. 
  • Grants Online System. NOAA provided grants management automation in support of grant applications, evaluation, award, and long-term management and operational processes across most of the department. 
  • Emergency Notification System. Commercial cloud-based application that quickly broadcasts emergency alerts to NOAA employees using multiple communication pathways, providing employees with timely, consistent information during a crisis.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

On the path to shared IT service success, there are important decisions to make to avoid pitfalls. Key challenges include a lack of visibility of available shared services, acquisition and budget restrictions, data security/privacy, business models, and performance requirements. These all have contributed to a culture in which proprietary, specialized systems are common.

One of the challenges is cost. Given the rapid pace of change in technology, it’s not enough to just build technology solutions that meet today’s needs. As it stands, agency IT investments are so highly specialized and difficult to integrate with one another that it can be less expensive to acquire a new proprietary system than to share existing systems. Not to mention that it may take up to one year to transfer funds between departments to take advantage of services in other agencies. Shared IT services can also create a mismatch of staffing skills, or the business case may be based on lower IT operational head counts that cannot be easily obtained.

Another challenge is governance. Most efforts to consolidate or share IT services fail due to governance issues including the authority to force change when necessary, loss of power or control for those giving up resources, understanding and agreeing to expectations, and the ability to resolve inevitable conflicts arising from fulfillment, change management, and pricing and chargeback policies. Leadership engagement and sponsorship with the authority and accountability for results is a must. And nothing is more important than good project management to ensure performance, enforce deadlines, and keep the project within budget.

Despite these challenges, shared IT services is not only coming, it’s here. Once we overcome the initial funding and management obstacles, sharing services will prove to be the way we all learn to do more with less.

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