Why FDA’s new CIO is focusing on mobility

An FDA field inspector checks imported ginko nuts for contaminants and prepares samples for laboratory analysis in Los Angeles. (FDA/Flickr)

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Standing in a vegetable processing plant in California last week, the Food and Drug Administration’s new chief information officer caught a glimpse of why his agency needs to focus on mobility.

While trying to take a photo for her report, an FDA inspector placed her notebook between her knees, only to drop it seconds later into a pool of chlorine while juggling her camera. Todd Simpson watched as the inspector struggled to wipe off her notes through her plastic gloves. All in a frigid facility that had been causing the ink on the inspector’s pen to freeze as she jotted down notes.

“I’m watching this and I’m thinking — wow, all this cumbersome activity and all this time we’re spending doing business on paper is fixable,” he told FedScoop.

Todd-Simpson-June2015
FDA CIO Todd Simpson

What that inspector needed, Simpson said, was a tablet with applications that can gather all her notes and pictures, and automatically beam it into the agency’s systems. He’s aiming to have field inspectors pilot such devices within 12 to 15 months.

It’s part of a larger strategic IT plan Simpson is soon publishing to improve the systems of the 20,000-person agency. Simpson, who came to the job in May by way of the Department of Transportation where he served as an associate chief information officer, said he wants to make FDA the leader in government IT.

But FDA’s focus on mobility isn’t new. Walter Harris, the chief operations officer who served as the agency’s acting CIO, told FedScoop earlier this year that it could cut weeks off the time needed to conduct inspections. In his acting role, Harris already debuted an e-filing pilot to digitize prior inspection records that FDA workers could access in the field. Currently, inspection reports are submitted and stored on paper.

“They actually cut out an entire file room of real estate and made it digital,” Simpson said of the pilot. He plans to employ it across the agency.

David Dyjack, executive director of the National Environmental Health Association, an organization that represents public health practitioners, like local public health department workers, supported efforts to digitize and automate inspections.

“To be able to automate the inspection system would be helpful in most jurisdictions,” Dyjack said. Automation, he said, held the potential to make processes more efficient.

Also part of the mobility strategy are plans to start up a “choose your own device” program. The agency’s tech gurus will identify three to five phones that conform to existing user requirements and couple them with mobile device management technology, Simpson said. The agency has plans to roll out that program as early as September.

But the three- to five-year strategic plan encompasses a range of initiatives, like refining how well the IT office is satisfying the needs of the workers in the agency, improving workflow processes, getting into the cloud using a hybrid model, and conducting a rationalization exercise for data and software to make sure the agency isn’t duplicating its own efforts.

The agency is also restructuring its IT staff. Simpson brought on Farhan Khan, who he has worked with in past positions at the Justice Department, as the new chief technology officer. And the FDA has plans to hire a chief data officer.

At the same time, Simpson is diving into scientific computing, making sure that FDA workers have access to the high-tech resources they need to do their work.

“Twenty year ago, you’d go into a lab and see a microscope on the desk. Today you go into a lab and everything’s got Ethernet plugged into it,” he said.

The federal government has been slow to move into the realm of supporting a complicated device that has an IP address, Simpson said. He added that he must balance the need to keep the systems secure with making sure researchers have access to the technology they need.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a situation in my entire career where meeting the requirements of business and keeping the business secure have been at such an intersection point,” he said.

The Food and Drug Administration had been without a permanent CIO for more than two years by the time Simpson came on board, and before that, the job had a high turnover. But Simpson said the agency has more progressive systems than other federal agencies he’s seen. It’s well positioned, he thinks, to be the IT leader in government.

“We don’t have that deficit, that IT crater that needs to be filled in,” he said. “We kind of have a green field.”

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Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, Food and Drug Administration, mobile and wireless, mobility, Tech
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