How enterprise architecture is curing the Census Bureau’s IT issues


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When you are working for the agency that is the leading source of data on the U.S. population, a streamlined approach to enterprise software is critical for success. For the Census Bureau, that approach wasn’t always in place.

When Necarsia McKinnon joined the bureau as chief enterprise architect in 2012, she found a Gordian knot when it came to the agency’s systems, finding more than 1,500 IT products and 1,000 business applications that were either overly redundant or one-off solutions that could have easily been shared services. Main program areas had different ways of describing their work, with each office using its own stovepiped solutions. With data that determines over $400 billion in federal funds, Chief Technology Officer Avi Bender tasked McKinnon to install some order.

What resulted was a customized enterprise architecture, or EA, framework that emphasized efficiency and agility, cut out a swath of excessive software, and spread shared solutions throughout the entire bureau.

“[The Census Bureau] did not have an EA program in place,” McKinnon said in an interview with FedScoop. “When I got here and started to understand the complexity of the environment, our mission and how things were set up, we took more of a customized approach to EA framework. We didn’t follow a prescribed way of implementing the EA program. It was more a fit-for-purpose.”

The 10-step framework was built with a focus on governance standards and a vetting process that assured software used by the bureau meets mission needs in the most efficient way possible.

“We started with standards because there was a high proliferation of IT products, mainly [commercial-off-the-shelf] products,” McKinnon said. “Each division would buy COTS products to fit all their needs. From a vendor management perspective, you would have the same product in four or five different areas under separate contracts. So there were some things that we saw that we went after immediately: Project management, software development, general office products and utilities. By doing that, we established some governance.”

Once McKinnon established a governance structure, other pieces of the framework started to fall in place. McKinnon helped create an Enterprise Standards Profile that aimed to reduce the bureau’s hardware and software footprint, a working group that oversaw the standards and a review board that figured out what software could be transformed into a shared solution.

“Generally, you know what EA is supposed to cover. You have to start with overall strategy of the organization and marry that to the technology,” McKinnon said. “We started with governance and then we said, ‘We need to get a handle of what technology is out there, and we need to understand how that technology is currently meeting the goals of the business, even in areas where we have a ton of duplication.’ We had to be able to actually see it and show that back to our leadership so they understand that we were duplicating efforts.”

But the linchpin to this framework, according in McKinnon, is the survey life cycle, which categorizes what software belongs where, how teams can use software across the agency and how that software can ultimately drive the Census Bureau toward fulfilling its mission.

“The Census Bureau [is] a survey operation — we count people, we want to be a leader in providing data,” McKinnon said. “The survey life cycle was a way to provide a common language that had to do with our overall mission, so that we can begin to transform the bureau from an organizational structure toward a more functional structure. Instead of ‘this division does this and that division does that,’ we build surveys and here are the functions. Despite what organization we have, we build surveys.”

While the framework has been installed for more than two years and has empowered decision makers to improve efficiencies, McKinnon told FedScoop there are still places within Census that are adjusting to the framework.

“The problem areas were, and to some degree still are, our own development shops,” she said. “Within these development shops, there was very little opportunity for integration across major mission applications. One of the things that we are tackling right now is [development] through APIs that will allow a greater data flow between our applications and hopefully produce great efficiencies.”

Yet with this framework in place, the bureau has gained elasticity and has allowed for more collaboration across the agency as it gears up for its next big population survey at the end of the decade.

“Within IT, we knew we had to put in place significant structural changes,” said Bender in a study for Troux, the platform on which the bureau monitors its enterprise architecture. “We needed a mechanism that would move us away from ‘business as usual’ to a more streamlined and collaborative environment in which to make better informed decisions.”

McKinnon said those decisions will continue to come as Census continues to embrace this framework.

“I don’t feel that we are over the hump,” she said. “I do think that we have really solid foundation to build on. I’m a little ambitious, so I feel we still have a ways to go. We’re not sitting back on our heels and saying ‘Oh, wow, look what we’ve done.’ There’s still many strides to be done in the way of shared services that we can employ.”

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Commerce Department, Departments, U.S. Census Bureau