Microsoft Says Economy Offers Opportunity for Gov't IT

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This is one of the toughest economic environments that most government IT administrators have experienced, but they should look at the situation as an opportunity, Microsoft told attendees of its CIO Summit on Wednesday.

"This is an economy where every dollar, resource, data center, laptop, desktop, vehicle is being put to the test," said Joel Cherkis, Microsoft general manager of Industry Unit. "We have to figure out how to do more with less."

Cherkis and other Microsoft executives spoke to government and education IT managers at the annual get-together in Redmond, Washington.

While the stimulus package includes few direct items specifically for IT, IT groups may end up with funding in order to implement requirements related to some of the funded projects.

For example, government bodies might find opportunities in mandates from President Obama. The president has said that government organizations have to be transparent, participatory and collaborative, Cherkis said. Technology in many cases can best help agencies comply with those mandates.

"While there are pressures, this is a time where the opportunity is there to move things forward," said Curt Kolcun, vice president of US Public Sector for Microsoft. "We can work in partnership to arm you in helping you step up and show elected officials and those in charge of government how technology can really have an impact."

There are other reasons why government IT workers can hope for increased funding going forward. "The government is the only industry in which the customers pick the management," said John Kost, a Gartner analyst. "So even now, despite the economy, from where we sit at Gartner we still see public sector clients still looking to do CRM [customer relationship management]. Political leaders still know they need to make citizens happy."

He said that 311 systems, where people can dial that number to get a customer support representative who can help them no matter what their government-related questions, are still being widely considered because politicians see the citizen benefits.

Still, some attendees of the conference seemed doubtful that they'd see funding any time soon for new projects. "I'm weary of the 'do more with less' buzz phrase," said Matthew McLean, deputy chief information officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He doesn't expect to see much money as a result of the stimulus package. While he thinks he can potentially maintain his services under budget and personnel cuts, he can't imagine improving or adding technology given the cuts.

However, McLean and others say that some types of emerging technologies could help cut costs, although they will require investments initially so that the agencies can make sure they comply with regulations.

For example, using hosted services rather than running some software in-house might save money, but government agencies have some unique privacy, security and other regulations that make a shift to hosted services more difficult than it is for many companies.

Thomas Mersch, chief architect of Indian Affairs for the Department of the Interior, said that by law he must try to hire Indian-run companies for services, which can sometimes be a challenge. However, he suspects that the work required to comply with laws would pay off in cost savings for hosted services. "I wouldn't be surprised if the cloud did become less expensive," he said.

Privacy, security and discoverability are other issues that worry McLean when he considers using hosted services. It ultimately comes down to trust of the vendor, he said.

He would like to use a hosted e-mail system. "It's a big system and it's critical, but you never have enough storage or bandwidth," he said.

The technology is mature enough for government bodies to use hosted software, said Amir Capriles, Microsoft strategic alliance manager. "This is the right time for on-demand," he said. That's because security is there, hosted platforms are available and the cost is right, he said.

Kolcun gave one good argument for the need to continue to implement new technologies: "I don't know of any other sector in the economy getting more customers every day."

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