Government spells out its IT spending priorities

A recent IDC/TIG study shows public sector IT departments are investing in new technologies such as content management and service-oriented architecture, but the bulk of the budgets in most government IT shops continues to be spent on “keeping the lights on,” as Chuck Henry puts it.

Henry, federal chief technology officer and senior director, enterprise technology and application strategies at Treasury Board Secretariat, says most of the approximately $5 billion annual federal IT spend for information technology — which represents expenditures such as distributed computing (desktop) support, data centre operations and network services — goes towards keeping the enterprise up and running.

This year, the federal government is facing a PC refresh cycle, as those machines that had been replaced to deal with the Y2K issue are coming up for retirement.

“Our incremental investment is focused on evergreen and taking advantage of new technologies as they come along, like network consolidation and voice over IP,” he says. “There’s lots of interest in server virtualization, and lots of varying investments in the application layers.”

Henry explains there is no central IT budget for federal government; IT is a departmental responsibility. 

Public Works and Government Services Canada has an IT shared services branch (ITSB), which spends about $650 million a year, or about 13 per cent of the total IT spend.

”If our shared services vision works the way I expect, ITSB could grow to a $2.5 to $3 billion business over the next five-to seven years, providing roughly half the IT services for the government,” he says.

The IDC/TIG study, which surveyed 169 government decision-makers last November, found that 30 per cent of respondent are acquiring, piloting or considering investments in VoIP over the next 12 to 18 months.

VoIP, says Henry, not only increases an organization’s flexibility in terms of easily moving, adding or changing employees, but also offers improved call centre capabilities and features.

Service Canada is integrating its networks to be able to run voice over IP.

“We look at that as an opportunity to do other network integration,” says Henry. “We’ve already offered some of their services to another department.”

Different departments are interested in voice over IP for different reasons, he adds.

“The problem is especially outside the National Capital Region we might have a Government of Canada building and it will often have a single, shared voice network, but it might have a dozen or more data networks flowing into it, so until we get those data networks converged, voice over IP remains a challenge… which is why the Service Canada evolution is attractive.”

According to the IDC study, service-oriented architecture is second on the public sector IT executive’s wish list. Almost a quarter of respondents said they are acquiring, piloting or considering investments in SOA.

“It’s certainly an area of major interest for me,” says Henry. “I really like the model; I like the neutrality of the model and the ability to integrate across traditional silos.”

Henry reports that a number of departments are using Web services-based technology.

According to Alison Brooks, a senior IDC Canada Ltd. analyst with its government practice, vendors need to be more aware of the profound shift towards reusability for reasons of both cost and service provision. SOA, she says, is slowly gaining traction in Canada, “but given the revenue anticipated from adjacent software and corresponding hardware sales that depend on SOA adoption, vendors need to hasten their pace.”

And while government-specific application development topped the survey’s IT challenges generated by the federal government’s continued focus on electronic service delivery, there are two sides to that story, says Henry.

“There’s the internal half where we have decided that to the greatest extent possible we’re going to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products to do finance, admin, HR and eventually that broad back office stuff.”

But on the public-facing, service delivery side, there is a lot less COTS out there, he notes. “There aren’t many people developing software to forecast the weather or do spectrum management.”

That’s why IDC is looking at how well the private sector is able to answer this call for government-specific application development.

“Given that this has emerged as a key area of development we have recently gone to field to drill deeper, and to probe whether indeed vendors are able to respond to this need,” says Brooks.

Although the federal and municipal governments differ in scope and size, they share many of the same IT concerns and drivers, and differ from the private sector in similar ways.

Take storage, for example. 

The reality is, says Henry, information management is a different beast in the public sector than it is in the private sector.

“At the end of the day the government and libraries and archives in particular would like to keep everything for all time because it is our heritage,” he says. “In the private sector I will somewhat ruthlessly say the goal is to keep as little as possible for the shortest time possible. These fundamental notions are not congruent. 

“So therefore we have a storage demand for structured, organized storage of unstructured information like e-mail and voice, which is another reason voice over IP would be interesting, that outstrips that of the private sector.”

John Davies, executive director of IT for the City of Toronto, agrees, says the city is constantly looking at its storage architecture and new technologies that will most cost-effectively provide hierarchical levels of storage, which moves more low-demand data to a less expensive storage medium.

Toronto, like the federal government, is also in the midst of an effort to replace Y2K-era equipment. That’s just part of the city’s commitment to maintaining its tech assets in good repair – and managing in the midst of serious financial constraints. The city has established a lifecycle replacement program for its tech assets — desktops, laptops, printers, servers, printers, storage devices and network gear — at the end of their useful life.

Although the City of Toronto has not made many positive IT-related headlines over the past few years, especially if compared to cities like Mississauga, that’s apparently about to change, with a host of new projects designed to improve both internal efficiency and services to residents.

“The biggest one for us is … 311,” Davies says, adding it recently closed its 311 RFP. It also has a voice over IP RFP on the street.

“The first step is to develop a strategy to get a sense of what the business case would be like and where it would make sense,” he says. “Is it an all or nothing approach and how would we phase it in?”

The city has also upgraded its SAP software, extending its work order systems to provide the work order management module to its facilities and real estate division. Plans are to also extend it to parks, forestry and recreation as well.

In addition, Toronto is planning to implement a number of new operations management tools and processes such as ITIL, and is looking at new document management technologies similar to the federal RDIMS initiative.

“We’re starting slowly – we’re planning on putting in a core set of document management technologies, and then piloting a number of divisions.”

The city’s Web site, which hasn’t been updated in six years – practically a lifetime in Internet years – is also in the queue for both a new design and new portal-based technology.

Also on the horizon is an enterprise architecture approach, which will soon be going to RFP.

“In all probability we’re going to be adopting an SOA approach,” he says. “What we’re looking at is initially to get some consulting assistance to develop the strategy for SOA. One of the things we will be reviewing is whether SOA makes sense for us, and assuming it does, what’s the kind of pace we could expect to move at in that area.”

What the survey’s findings should tell vendors selling to the public sector is that budgets are tight, there’s a massive demographic crunch and service delivery expectations are higher than ever, says IDC’s Brooks.

“Government CIOs and IT employees are working hard to overcome these challenges, to become more productive in serving their constituencies,” she says. “They are focused more on consolidation, virtualization in hardware, reusability in software, and maximizing a variety of business models to innovatively provide government services.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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