DHS IT Modernization Panel – Looking Forward Drives Home Familiar Themes

Published: May 03, 2018

DHSInformation Technology

The prominence of IT modernizing in the current federal tech landscaper has agencies and industry alike looking for clues to what’s coming.

IT modernization was the focus of discussion at a recent AFCEA DC event that featured a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) panel with representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (CIS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Panel participants included:

  • Francis Rose, Host, Government Matters – Moderator
  • Edward Mays, Director, Enterprise Data Management and Engineering Directorate, US Customs and Border Protection
  • Ted Okada, Chief Technology Officer, Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • Rob Brown, Division Chief, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services

The discussion that ensued covered familiar topics of interest including cloud computing, data center consolidation, agile software development, DEVOPS/SECDEVOPS, and the federal IT workforce and agency culture. As the conversation progressed a number of themes emerged that are relevant to the overall IT modernization landscape.

  • Risk mitigation as a driver for modernization. Unlike commercial enterprises that deal with profit and loss, federal agencies focus on their mission and deal with mission risk. If risk is not addressed, it accumulates over time as issues build. Modernization is in large part about reducing risk as well as improving performance. 
  • Standards and precise technical terms are often elusive but crucial to success. Agencies often suffer from an ambiguity of terms and this lack of precision of terms hurts efforts to effectively modernize. For example, cloud computing often means different things to different people and some things that get called “cloud” simply are not. Even with terms and definitions from NIST sometimes there are still disconnects among agencies and with industry. Cybersecurity is another challenging area. Agencies are wrestling with clarity and precise terms from industry for cloud, open source, security, etc. that impact progress.
  • Effective leadership – both in personnel and approaches – is a key element. Having leaders with the right combination of experience, vision and skills can make the difference between progress and stagnation. Further, agencies that have led the way and have “lessons learned” to share can save other agencies from many pitfalls and pains.
  • Organizational culture and people are key elements to successful modernization. Modernization is not just about the technology, but it’s about people – internal staff and organizational cultures – that are served by modernized technologies. It is also about the constituencies that an agency serves. Smart agencies will give external customers the opportunity to weigh in and influence what and how agencies modernize. Several DHS components continue efforts to de-stovepipe their IT operations and infrastructure and that requires a culture shift. Transparency within and between components and main DHS management is a necessary element. A strong degree of introspection to assess internal skill sets and processes is another.
  • In the end modernization is all about the outcomes. IT is a means to an agency’s mission success and whether the modernization effort is to instill agile processes, improve DEVSECOPS, deploy data analytics, migrate platforms or applications to the cloud or optimize/consolidate infrastructure the test of success will always come down to the results. Agencies must face the inertia and fear that inhibit effective modernization and move beyond the temptation to simply “project an image of competence” to address “what is the outcome and its impact on the agency?”


With all of the buzz around agency IT modernization that has been created by White House policy directives, legislation (e.g. MGT Act) and lingo included in the FY 2019 federal budget I am being asked by industry clients with increasing frequency what agencies are doing and where are they spending money. But this panel discussion confirmed much of what I have suspected after a thorough reading of the budget and discussions with fellow analysts.

The bottom line: the push for IT modernization has not yet broken open any “floodgates of money” or even produced a (public) list of new modernization initiatives. Rather, these DHS leaders gave me the sense that the latest focus on IT modernization actually lands mid-stream among many ongoing and continual modernization efforts scattered throughout their agencies. In fact, when the panelist were asked pointedly about upcoming modernization-oriented solicitations their responses centered primarily around previously released RFIs and general thoughts on internal processes and the need for network re-architecture. Not much detail.

I also got the sense that while they may be involved in department-level planning of potential larger modernization investments the actual money decisions will likely take place above them (at the CFO level?) In the meantime, they are busy with keeping ongoing operations running while also following through on the modernization efforts that they already have underway . . . even before IT modernization was the latest “shiny object” that everyone hopes will have money thrown at it.