Wennergren sees changing role for DOD CIO -- and department's IT progress

From Common Access Card to cloud computing, democratization of technology is now the byword

For everything said about the Defense Department's notoriously sluggish approach to information-age transformation, there's no doubt that progress has been made, and according to Dave Wennergren, outgoing deputy DOD CIO, the evolution symbolizes a department that is closing the digital gap.

"Thursday [Oct. 6] marked the 10th anniversary of the DOD Common Access Card," Wennergren said in an exclusive interview with Federal Computer Week.

The CAC spurred many advances that are fundamental in how DOD works on a daily basis: cryptographic log-ins to access the DOD network, digital signatures and public-key infrastructure.

"It doesn't seem like it was that long ago, but it was a dramatic undertaking," he said. "It was a profound change for the department."

Wennergren said these advances -- and others, like the use of social media in getting the mission done -- have been instrumental in building capabilities and putting DOD ahead of other federal agencies. And they are now paving the way for future advancement.

"You have to look at the democratization of technology," Wennergren said. "What used to take days for a computer programmer can now be done overnight through open-source technology. This is a future where capabilities can be delivered so much more rapidly. The opportunity to make a difference grows every year. "

But now, as Wennergren steps down as vice chairman of the CIO Council to take on a new role as assistant deputy chief management officer in the Office of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, it's one he will be watching largely from afar.

Wennergren acknowledges the hurdles in getting DOD up to speed with the breakneck pace of modern technology.

"Sometimes I sound so optimistic that people think I don't appreciate that it's hard -- but I know it's hard," he said. "You need a blend of patience and impatience.You have to keep pushing."

There are also still cultural issues that must be overcome in order to fully embrace the technology needed to modernize DOD. "You can't underplay that we have huge cultural issues," he said. "Usually, it's an issue of personal control. We like owning things ourselves, but the future is all about, 'I don't get to own my own servers anymore.' "

One of the department's biggest impediments is moving toward managed services such as cloud computing, he said.

The challenges require a team-oriented strategy, and that team will need an information leader who understands the approach. "If you're an information leader and you're not thinking about the power and importance of the team, you're not doing it right," he said.

And perhaps the most visible information leader role of all is also one that's currently uncertain: DOD CIO. The ongoing organizational restructuring under Defense Secretary Robert Gates keeps the position in limbo. Gates muddied the waters when he presented a sweeping reorganization plan that, among other things, shutters Joint Forces Command and moves the CIO position into the Defense Information Systems Agency. Then President Barack Obama's nomination of California CIO Teri Takai was withdrawn, leaving unanswered the question of whether officials want her in the role or if whether was just an administrative move in keeping with Gates' reorganization strategy.

The post has been vacant since the administration of George W. Bush.

According to Wennergren, however, the CIO role will emerge stronger and integral to DOD's transformation. Defining and filling the job is still a work in progress, he said.

"Depending on where DOD is in the evolutionary journey, you have to pick the CIO with the right skill set for that journey," Wennergren said. "There are certain things that have to happen. The CIO has to be involved in the core process, and has to have a seat at the table."

"It's a continuing evolution to see what happens with the CIO role over time, and it will be interesting to see what happens," he said.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a staff writer covering military networks for Defense Systems.

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