Is it time to rethink IT governance?

In this Q&A from our sibling publication, a U.S. Digital Service veteran talks about the need for IT stakeholders of all stripes to share their thoughts on governance obstacles that hinder successful acquisition and deployment of big and small technology projects.

NOTE: This Q&A first appeared on

Right now, the default setting for federal technology acquisition and deployment leads to failure, according to U.S. Digital Service veteran Mark Lerner. While at USDS, Lerner worked on the development of the Electronic Immigration System for the U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Service and on an effort, ultimately abandoned, to create an agile acquisition contract vehicle for the Department of Homeland Security.

One of his big lessons is that it is really hard to get things right in federal technology acquisition and deployment. Now at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Lerner looking at how to break this cycle of failure.

In an Oct. 21 blog post, Lerner explained his research and put out a call for federal technology practitioners and stakeholders to share their thoughts about what governance structures stand in the way of building and delivering services that people want and need. He spoke with FCW about the effort; the answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

FCW: How did you get interested in federal IT governance and technology management?

Lerner: I was at the USDS looking into what other countries had done, looking across the Atlantic at the Government Digital Service [in the United Kingdom], looking at other states here, looking at the Canadian Digital Service and realizing that what we were accomplishing here [at the federal level] is very different than what other teams across the world had done. It really became a question of incentives. By looking at what was actually keeping them from accomplishing things, in terms of delivering good technology and good services, we would see that there were seven-plus committees that people had to report to. They had to, by some policy, provide a 5- to 10-year roadmap. They had to, by some regulation, use a particular type of procurement structure that ultimately ended up with them not getting the right talent in-house. We realized that if we can change governance structures, we can really unlock a lot of potential.

What are you hoping to discover in your current project?

It's sort of thinking about how come every time we try and do these projects, they don't go the way that we planned, and looking at those reasons and trying to dismantle things that haven't actually worked for us and build a new processes to make sure that any new project can be led to success.

You talked about regulations and reporting structures. How do you convince people with oversight of projects – many of which have failed in the past – to change governance? How do you make that case?

I don't think that anyone is against the case, the change needs to happen. I think that it's just a matter of pulling together the pieces and say, if we're really going to start from scratch, here's a plan for what the next phase is really should look like.

To be honest, the people that I've had these conversations with inside of the government that are in roles as auditors or people that review large programs all also know that these things need to be changed. I don't think that there's anyone that I have had these discussions with that says, you know, "the status quo as it is, is the right thing to do." So in terms of making the case that we need to do something different, I think that everyone's sort of asking that question right now. 

How are efforts to create new structures going?

We see a lot of, I'll use the term "innovation team" though -- there's problems with that term – that are set up to be exempt from the governance structures of the past, and allowed to do things outside of the norm. That gives them a lot of power and a lot of ability to move things forward, but that doesn't actually spread that ability across the board to other parts of the organization. A lot of people are trying to do agile pilots. But the hard part is that it's a massive interconnected web of different incentive structures and different governance models or different things that push people back into these corners.

Who do you want to hear from in your research and what do you want to talk to them about?

I would love to hear from the people that have run into these issues personally. One of the things that I learned from my time in government is that you can sort of go down the chain, right? So if you start with the program manager for a software project and they say, "Oh gosh, well, I have to provide all these different documents to this office up on high. And that's a blocker for me." Then you go to that office and they say, well, we have to request this sort of stuff, because there's an [Office of Management and Budget] regulation. So we follow that to OMB and find someone who says, "well, we have to do that because of some LARs [legislative appropriations requests] or some audit that we are trying to abide by."

And so there's a long chain that you can always see, but every single person on that chain has their own story of how they run into these sorts of blockers. And I want to talk to those people to basically ask them, what has that been like for you when you have been trying to do this good work? Those are the people that really understand the challenges that we're facing from a structural perspective, and that will have the ideas for how to make things better.