Jeffrey Zients, of the Officer Office of Management and Budget, is expected to prepare recommendations for IT management and procurement this fall. (THOMAS BROWN / STAFF)
Instead of spending years to develop customized information technology solutions to problems industry has already solved, agencies must make greater use of commercial software and roll those systems out quickly to keep pace with technology.
That was the message more than 50 private-sector CEOs told top Obama administration officials at a Jan. 14 White House summit on how to use IT effectively to make the government run better.
The White House is expected to relay that message along to federal IT managers soon. Jeffrey Zients, the government's chief performance officer and deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, said he will issue a governmentwide implementation plan based on the CEOs' advice by mid-February.
"Anything that takes more than 18 months is probably too complex and will probably be outdated," said Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen during the forum.
A key to faster IT projects, said John Chen, Sybase Inc.'s CEO, is not to try to do too much. The government shouldn't try to solve all of its modernization issues at once or try "connecting 60 silos," Chen said. "You've got to think about whether that's even possible," he said, recommending that agencies try to connect two or three disparate networks or databases instead.
Although observers inside and outside government agree using more commercial software and developing systems incrementally will help government, they warn that leaders face cultural and budget barriers to doing so.
The 14-year-old Clinger-Cohen Act requires agencies to purchase commercially available technology and develop IT in a more modular fashion, said Tim Young, deputy OMB administrator for e-government and IT during the Bush administration. But agencies have not done so because of "the perception that every agency and every program within the agency is unique and therefore there is no commercial off-the-shelf application that can meet all the business requirements," said Young, now a senior manager with Deloitte.
Agencies must recognize the difference between requirements and preferences, Young said. A commercial solution may provide what government needs in a cheaper, better format, even if it does not deliver it in the way agencies are used to doing business, he said.
Another challenge is agencies' dependence on annual appropriations approved by Congress, which can cripple IT projects, said Peter Tseronis, the Energy Department deputy associate chief information officer for information strategy and innovation.
Projects are often designed immediately after the money is in, which isn't efficient but is necessary because agencies have to complete projects before funding disappears, he said.
"If you get your budget six months into a fiscal year, it throws your whole IT road map out of whack," Tseronis said.
The budget is a major challenge in getting agencies to shift from the "big bang" method of development to incremental development, said David Mader, a senior vice president for Booz Allen Hamilton. Agencies not only have to plan for the investment, they have to convince Congress and OMB that it's worth funding year after year, said Mader, a former IRS assistant deputy commissioner.
Agencies have to prove there is a monetary and performance benefit to continually upgrading a system, he said. But justifying an IT project based upon projected money savings makes many managers nervous because saving money often means losing money from already tight operating budgets, Mader said.
One solution Congress, OMB and agencies should explore is a revolving fund for IT development similar to the fund for building federal buildings: multiyear money that can be used to fund and maintain an IT system long term, he said.
Making IT a capital investment has worked for many states, said William Eggers, global director of public-sector industry for Deloitte Research and co-author of "If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government."
Learn how to fail
But more predictable and steady funding alone won't necessarily improve IT effectiveness, he said. Federal managers also need to learn how to fail, Eggers said. "The lesson from the private sector is fail small and fail fast," Eggers said. Instead, agencies waste billions investing in obsolete systems that become too big to fail.
"Do a lot of prototyping and reconfiguring as it hits the real world" because "you don't know until the users are operating it how well it's going to do," he added. Incremental development will give agencies the flexibility they need to adapt systems when problems arise or technology changes.
Government needs to be more like Google, which has products, like Gmail, that have been in beta testing for years. In its perpetual beta testing state, Google uses feedback to continuously adapt and change its products to meet customer wants and needs, he said.
This is the approach IRS has taken with its e-file system, Mader said. Over the last decade, IRS upgraded the program to respond to citizens' needs and technological advances, making the system better and user-friendly, he said.
Mader agrees with Young that agencies need to realize their processes are not as unique as they think they are if they're going to successfully modernize. During a major transformation in the 1990s, when IRS was lining up its business processes with those of the commercial financial sector, leaders realized that the act of collecting taxes isn't that different from collecting other debts, Mader said.
When processes are similar, "why wouldn't the government take advantage of the commercial off-the-shelf practices that can do financial management," Mader said. "We should be taking advantage of that software because it has already been developed and it continues to be enhanced based on best practices."
Some agencies have been slow to realize they're not unique, said Karen Evans, former OMB e-government and IT administrator during the Bush administration. For example, the FBI's virtual case file system was a $100 million boondoggle because the agency developed all aspects of the system, even instant messaging, from scratch.
"They kept saying they were different because they were law enforcement," Evans said. But there are other law enforcement agencies with successful case management systems in place, meaning solutions that could have met the FBI's needs at a lower cost did exist, she said.
"Someone needs to make the hard decision … to make [agencies] use off-the-shelf software," said Evans, who is now an IT consultant. Where needs are unique, such as grant-making, agencies should pick one program, customize it, then make all grant-making agencies use it, she said.
Some level of customization will be necessary because most programs don't automatically fit what agencies need, Tseronis said.
"A product out of the box doesn't meet every need, but as a result we have customization sprawl or we create too many stovepipes," he said.
Agencies need to balance the need for customization with making sure systems are still compatible across agencies, Tseronis said.