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The challenges of management reform

Mar. 25, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By ALAN BALUTIS   |   Comments
Alan Balutis is a distinguished fellow and senior director, U. S. Public Sector, Cisco Systems. His 28 years in the federal sector were spent at the Department of Commerce, where he headed its management and budget office for over a decade and was its first CIO.
Alan Balutis is a distinguished fellow and senior director, U. S. Public Sector, Cisco Systems. His 28 years in the federal sector were spent at the Department of Commerce, where he headed its management and budget office for over a decade and was its first CIO. ()

A government trade press article recently heralded the White House’s “long-awaited refreshment of its government wide management agenda,” released on March 4 as part of the President’s FY 2015 budget. I’m usually not one to parse words, but I viewed this second term agenda as less of a “refresh” and more of a “rehash.” As part of its bid to “create a 21st century government,” the Analytical Perspectives volume and a chapter in the budget itself repeat previous calls for Congress to give the president authority to reorganize agencies, create a new independent federal property disposal board, continue efforts to reduce improper payments and reform Department of Defense acquisition. Also included are promises to open government-funded data and research to the public, unlock the full potential of today’s Federal workforce, and enhance the government’s ability to recruit a top-talent workforce, “the workforce we need for tomorrow.”

As I’ve said elsewhere, I found this “rehash” not troubling, but reassuring. Bringing about change in a bureaucracy as large and complex as our Federal government takes time, leadership, commitment, and continuity. But I was somewhat troubled by the lack of any proposals to reform the way the government acquires, manages and oversees information technology. While there are passing references to “delivering smarter IT,” Portfolio Stat, cloud computing, and “the problems surrounding the initial rollout of HealthCare.gov,” the budget is notable in the absence of IT and /or procurement reform proposals.

What might explain this gaping hole in an agenda that purports to be “. . . a comprehensive and forward-looking plan to deliver better, faster, and smarter services to citizens and business?” One can only guess, but here are some thoughts.

First, the Hill has already taken the high ground. The Federal Information Technology and Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) has passed the House again and Senate versions are beginning to spring up. Congressman Issa is pushing hard for passage and his Democratic co-sponsor, Gerald Connolly, D.-Va, has advised Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, to get on board “or else”, that this is the best deal and legislation the administration is going to get.

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Second, there is little disagreement that the management of large-scale IT projects is in need of reform. But fixing the known and documented problems that plague Federal IT programs requires a wide-ranging remediation, one that addresses such matters as organizational resolve, dedicated political-level sponsorship, program management, measurement and testing, human resources issues, and procurement. But in the meetings and forums I have participated in on this matter, I see over and over variations of the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Groups like The Partnership for Public Service see it as an HR issue. Others like the Professional Services Council and TechAmerica, see it as a procurement and/or a program management problem. Former government CIOs see the changing nature of IT in the government today. In some versions of the parable, the blind men stop talking and arguing, start listening, and collaborate to “see” the full elephant. When a sighted man walks by and sees the entire elephant all at once, they also learn they are blind.

Finally, there is the law of unintended consequences. A natural response to a major project failure like HealthCare.gov.is to increase governance and oversight. Unfortunately, this diligence means more rather than less – more reviews, more approvals, more gates to pass through, more commitments, more cost estimates and budget reviews, and so on. One former colleague used to say, “Sometimes a government reform program is like a barge. Everyone throws everything on it and soon it is unable to leave the dock.”

But if IT and acquisition reform isn’t going to happen in this Congress, when the stars are aligned in a way that happens only once in decades, this is the time for the White House, industry and good government associations to speak up. And not with what they are against or with “the perfect is the enemy of the good” arguments. This is the time to say what they favor and support.

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