White House promises major changes to IT management

The Obama administration has developed a five-pronged strategy for improving federal agencies’ ability to manage large IT programs.

The strategy, which will be launched during the next six months by the President’s Management Council, entails structural changes in how programs are funded, staffed and managed.

The strategy includes aligning budget and acquisition schedules more closely, developing a professional acquisition corps, increasing accountability for outcomes by reducing ineffective layers of oversight, engaging more closely with the IT industry, and prioritizing cloud-based solutions (see details below).

Rather than developing the strategy from scratch, officials at the Office of Management and Budget drew on successful initiatives already in place across the federal government, said Jeffrey Zients, chairman of the council and OMB's acting director.

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By fixing perpetual management problems, administration officials believe they can make it easier for agencies to take advantage of ongoing advances in the IT industry.

IT management "needs to be more agile, more adaptable to new technologies, more accountable and more focused on results," Zients said today at an event sponsored by the Northern Virginia Technology Council.

“Too often, IT projects are over budget, behind schedule and fail to deliver results,” he added. “Fixing IT is central to everything we are trying to do. IT is our top priority.”

Officials at TechAmerica, an IT industry group, strongly support the strategy, particularly because the administration seems intent on pushing it through.

“OMB’s six-month time frame shows that they are serious about setting a prudent, common-sense course for improving federal technology,” Phil Bond, TechAmerica's president, wrote in a letter to Congress.

“This framework for improving large federal IT implementations is eminently achievable with the right action plan,” he added.

Alan Balutis, a director in the Internet Business Solutions Group at Cisco Systems, said the administration has brought together the key elements for making IT management work, such as governance, purchasing and the workforce.

But the most challenging part for Zients will be getting Congress on board, Balutis said. Zients is seeking more agility in budgeting and appropriating funds in exchange for enhanced transparency and accountability.

“We’ll see how it works out on the Hill,” Balutis said.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), soon to be chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, "looks forward to working with OMB and the private sector on proposals to address this wasteful spending,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa.

“IT management reform is easier said than done. For too many years, agencies have launched IT projects that attempt to achieve ambitious goals but ultimately fall short and waste billions," Hill said.

Other aspects of the strategy could also be difficult.

Among its new reform initiatives, OMB officials want to improve the flow of information between government contracting officials and industry representatives. They believe they can do that if both sides are better educated about what type of communication is permissible under the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

Experts say government and industry talks have nearly ceased because of a fear of overstepping a fine line. A single gaffe could cut short a procurement on which an agency has spent a lot of time.

Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, recently said agencies can get sharper and more innovative bids on future projects if acquisition officials talk to companies that didn’t win a contract. They could explain to the losing bidders why they didn’t win, which will help companies the next time around.

In a recent survey by the Professional Services Council, a procurement official said a good relationship between government and industry can be profoundly productive. Right now, the two sides need to find a way to strengthen that relationship.

“We need a way to create a functional environment so that we can leverage that relationship to get the latest technology and skills, and that takes a culture of innovation,” the official said. "Right now, it’s not where it needs to be."

Meanwhile, Robert Kahn, chairman, president and CEO of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives and one of the founding designers of the Internet, questioned some of the Obama administration’s assumptions about cloud computing.

In particular, Kahn challenged the notion that agencies can successfully shift to proposed cloud computing platforms. He said the government first needs to build a foundational plan to support cloud computing, which involves taking an open-architecture approach.

Zients offered the following details on the five components of the administration's strategy.

1. Align budgets and acquisitions with the technology cycle. The goal is to create the flexibility to respond to changing technologies and avoid getting locked into old technologies due to the length of time needed to complete budget and acquisition requirements. At the Veterans Affairs Department, the CIO has the authority to redirect funds from ineffective IT development projects into other programs, and the intent is to adopt a similar approach governmentwide. The White House will conduct pilot projects to test various ways of increasing flexibility in acquisition.

2. Strengthen program management. Agencies must have a dedicated program manager and an integrated team of acquisition, financial and other specialists in place before an IT project will receive approval to go forward. Also, Zients said he is working with the Office of Personnel Management to design a career path by May 2011 for specialized program managers and acquisition professionals who are knowledgeable about IT, agile development and technology cycles. The approach is based on an idea from the Social Security Administration.

3. Increase accountability and streamline government. At some departments, there are as many as seven layers of managers between the program manager of an IT project and the secretary of the department. The new structural change, which originated at the Interior Department, seeks to create clear lines of authority and accountability, eliminate layers of ineffective oversight, and hold regular accountability sessions. Also, agency investment review boards will be reconstituted to provide more effective oversight. Currently, those boards operate as “check-box” overseers, and the goal is to have them operate in a more focused fashion with an emphasis on outcomes.

 4. Increase engagement with industry. In an idea borrowed from the Education Department, the goal is to increase collaboration with industry on experimental development efforts for IT solutions. When Education used such an effort to improve student loan programs, the resulting solution took significantly less time to develop and cost significantly less than it would have through a traditional acquisition process.

5. Adopt light technologies and shared solutions. The aim is to avoid the tendency of government agencies to choose proprietary and customized IT solutions and give priority to cloud-based and shared solutions. Under a new cloud-first policy, agencies would be required to choose a cloud-based solution if one exists before initiating a new IT solution development program. To facilitate that approach, there will be secure cloud platforms available for agencies, Zients said.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra will hold a public event Dec. 9 to offer additional details on action items under each of the five component initiatives, Zients added.

He also offered an update on the consolidation of the 2,000 federal data centers, saying that the goal is to reduce that number by 40 percent by 2015.