Among the many calls for commoditization of government IT and the arguments made to support a move toward cloud-based services (both Infrastructure and Software as a Service), some news I read today and a later client conversation made me wonder whether we are not getting it all wrong.
The news was from earlier today on NextGov, according to which NASA is contemplating moving away from traditional parts of the space program, such as transporting people and materials into orbit, because of growing costs. These activities may be outsourced to commercial enterprises. On the other hand, NASA is heavily engaged in building its own cloud-based infrastructure, nicknamed Nebula (see also previous post), which development may not be affected by cuts in other core mission activities (such as human exploration).
The client conversation was with an IT executive from a U.S: state agency, who is contemplating the development of a joint solution for a particular application domain, engaging peer agencies in other states. At present, states rely on a variety of COTS vendors, with a heavy amount of personalization involved, since business rules vary considerably. Costs and vendor dependence are driving him to consider a “community source” alternative. In our discussion it became very clear that something like this works – at least at the beginning – if agencies have critical IT skills available internally, and plan to stay that way for quite some time. Of course those resources can be complemented by contractors (mostly on a T&M basis) but engagement of COTS vendors in government-run communities can come only later, when those communities self-sustain and reach maturity. Therefore agencies have to consider application development and maintenance as a core competency, possibly to the detriment of other, more directly mission-related posts.
So while the common wisdom tells us that the secret of government IT modernization is “to make IT go away” (i.e. outsourcing, cloudsourcing or even crowdsourcing), here are two examples that prove otherwise.
In the case of the state agency one might say that a domain application is indeed mission-critical and is worth continuous investments to ensure independence from the volatility of vendors faith. On the other hand, it is hard to see IT as closer to NASA’s core business than manned space exploration.
Indeed we are living interesting times, full of contradictions: consolidation vs. decentralization, cloudsourcing vs. insourcing, IT as a commodity vs. IT as a strategic weapon.
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