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. ()
So if I were young, hip, conversant with social media, or up-to-date on current technologies, I’d term this a crowd-sourcing column. But since I’m none of the above (my Cisco Colleagues know me to be at the trailing edge of technology), I’ll just pose this as a question: Consider how so many major IT systems initiatives, which are so clearly over-budget, behind schedule, and not delivering the promised functionality (ones that Peat-Marwick dubbed “runaway systems”). Why are they allowed to proceed?
Why are they continually funded – by their agency, by their department, by the Office of Management and Budget, by the Appropriations Committees, by the Congress, by the White House?
In a statement accompanying the introduction of a bill that would restructure Federal IT procurement, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said, “A recent study found that 94 percent of major government IT projects between 2003 and 2012 came in over budget, behind schedule, or failed completely. In an $80 billion sector of our federal budget, this is an unacceptable waste of taxpayer dollars.” So what profession, what field, what leader, what organization would tolerate a 6 percent success rate? And why?
I’ve asked the latter question myself over the last several weeks of senior government and industry leaders and here are the most frequent answers:
■ “Run Silent, Run Deep” – While major systems initiatives are troubled, their program leaders keep mum about the problems and so higher-ups remain in the dark. Doesn’t seem likely given TechStat reviews at the Office of Management and Budget, Inspector General audits, and so on. But …. How about . . .
■ “It’s All Politics” – Major initiatives, especially those at the Department of Defense, involve major systems integrators, an array of partners and subcontractors, thousands of employees (i.e., voters) in scores of Congressional districts, and so while many recognize the systems initiative is in trouble, no one is willing to ruffle political feathers. Seems so shallow and “House of Cards”- like, but . . . How about . . .
■ “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” – This Pete Seeger song tells the story of a platoon wading in a river in Louisiana on a practice patrol in 1942. Imperiously ignoring his sergeant’s concerns, the captain orders the platoon to continue, until they are finally up to their necks. Sadly, I’ve witnessed this as a government CIO, as an agency leader slowly explained to me that despite having run behind over the last five quarters and expended 75 percent of the budget and only delivering 15 percent of the system functionality – often untested -- all was going to be made up in the next 60 to 90 days.
But what say you, informed readers? E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll aggregate the results for a future column.
And, for extra credit, a bonus question: When should an organization pull the plug on a runaway project?