When Frank Baitman, chief information officer of the Department of Health and Human Services, talks about his top 10 projects for fiscal year 2015, he repeats one word pretty often: consolidation.
No, not all of his office’s goals for the year involve consolidating; there’s a massive Email-as-a-Service project he plans to roll out later this year to the department, and he’s working on introducing a secure bring your own device system by this fall, just to name a few. But for a department as massive as HHS — which has several subordinate agencies, or “operating divisions” — structuring systems and handling information efficiently becomes a priority.
And so, in 2015, consolidating the IT systems shared among HHS’ 62,000 employees will be a prevailing theme for the agency.
Right now, Baitman explains, his office is in the midst of a customer relationship management initiative consolidating the department’s several call centers. For someone in HHS who needs help on an issue, there are several different help desks they could call, but that adds a hurdle to problem-solving because they have to determine which desk to use.
“We have all these independent help desks, and we took a look at that and said, ‘Wait a second. Isn’t there an efficiency to be gained by consolidating these?'” Baitman said. “But [there’s] also simplicity for the user out there to say, ‘I have a problem with X, I don’t need to figure out where to call.’ There’s one place to call.” Baitman said it’s his and his office’s job to create a single help desk to support many different objectives.
There’s an inherent challenge, though, in HHS’ federated structure and having to address the consolidation across the department’s related sub-agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health. So Baitman is starting with the Office of the Secretary’s services, some that are enterprise-level and some that are localized to the Office of the Secretary, “focused simply on our customers for the technology that we provided them, desktop support or what have you,” he said.
As time goes on, they’ll spread out from there. But Baitman clarified that consolidating the systems in the secretary’s office isn’t as small a job as it might seem.
“I think it’s important to sort of understand the Office of the Secretary is a term we throw around a lot and people think it’s pretty small — it’s actually pretty large,” he said of the office, which serves about 10,000 users in terms of technology support for its staff divisions and operating divisions. “Right now those 10,000 users have a help desk to call for telecom and a different help desk to call for desktop support — we’re consolidating all of that.”
Because HHS is federated — one larger, central agency split into many sub-agencies that work toward their own missions — passing change down the command line can be difficult, Baitman said.
“When we try and consolidate things, everyone expects things to be done the way they’ve always been done before,” he said of HHS and its subordinate agencies. But to be successful, “consolidating that infrastructure,” Baitman said, “it’s going to depend upon building trust with the operating divisions and demonstrating that HHS is capable of providing that infrastructure effectively, at service levels that they need to be able to conduct their business.”
Those struggles consolidating across a federated department are evident as well in an overhaul of HHS’ human resources systems planned to launch in spring 2016. Called Hire-to-Retire, the Office of the CIO wants to move all of HHS to a unified and modernized HR system.
“We’re having some challenges with that because every operating division, most had their own HR systems, and those HR systems define a business process for how you manage HR,” Baitman said. “Those were different from one another — they produced different data, the data elements had different definitions, the metadata was different. When you begin to consolidate all that, everyone wants to retain their own business process. But if you do that, you’re not actually consolidating.”
An ‘octopus’ of a problem
In the end, the issue of consolidation at HHS is linked to a disconnect in culture.
“People need to be open to change, and we all know government is not particularly open to change,” the CIO said. “We need to be able to change the business process and provide that infrastructure. But at the same time, we need to do it in a way that helps them meet their business needs. They need to be open and honest about what their real business needs are though so that we’re not just adding requirements. We’ve added so many requirements to the HR migration and consolidation activity that it’s becomes sort of an octopus with so many different tentacles at this point, and it’s becoming costly and very difficult to do the migration.”
Likewise, that issue is one seen departmentwide, not just within the Office of the CIO. Baitman said in his office, as well as others, the status quo is that many sub-agencies will sidestep the top-level HHS brass when faced with issues.
“They were reporting directly to OMB [Office of Management and Budget],” he said. “Then OMB had a question and goes directly to the person who has the answer, in which case the department gets cut out and then we find out after the fact that there’s been some programmatic change made that we weren’t aware of.”
But the CIO has his sights set — and the department does too — on inserting HHS back into the equation.
“Where we’re heading is where I think we’re more focused on economy, efficiency and outcomes,” Baitman said. “And the way we’re going to do that is by having this thing called HHS be a central body that handles some of the infrastructure — and I don’t mean just technology — for the operating divisions. And increasingly, the operating divisions will have the resources to focus on those things that are closer to their mission.”
At the IT level, doing that may have just gotten a bit easier, thanks to a recently passed bill called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. FITARA gives Cabinet-level CIOs the authority to set the IT budget and act as the sole CIO of their agencies and departments, in addition to other new powers.
“One of the things that FITARA calls out is that the department CIO should have a role in selecting all other subordinate CIOs, first of all,” Baitman said. “There are some things that are better provided at the operating division level, because there are different missions across HHS. My goal for my shop here is to take over responsibility for all those things that are a commodity and can be consolidated so that we can provide sort of that operating infrastructure for everyone in the department. And things that are more mission-focused get provided locally. That’s where I’m trying to take this.”