Jun 16 2008

Lessons From the E-Gov Pit Crew Chief

As Tim Young prepares to exit government, he offers some insights on keeping IT transformation efforts moving forward.

“A lack of will.”

Looking back at his five years working to rev up federal e-government initiatives, it’s that factor, not a lack of technology or technical prowess, says Tim Young, that often hampers IT projects and keeps them from succeeding.

By way of example, the deputy administrator for e-government and IT in the Office of Management and Budget points to the consolidation of the government’s financial systems. Despite the creation of financial services centers through the Financial Management Line of Business, two large agencies have yet to collapse their payroll processing and large data systems into one of the LOB’s centers.

“Really, it takes so long to consolidate because there is a lack of will,” says Young, who spoke at the spring Management of Change Conference in Norfolk, Va.

Young, who plans to step down from his post near the presidential shift but has yet to settle on his next work assignment, says he gained a satchelful of best practices when it comes to getting IT projects done in government:

  • Ask for advice, often and from everyone. Really listen so you can find answers to problems and identify potential barriers that must be addressed, Young says. But asking for advice is easier than listening and then acting on the information, he adds.
  • “Be wary of false constraints.” When listening, be alert for suggestions that there’s not enough money, or skills, or technical depth. Many arguments are not “can’t,” but “won’t” arguments, Young says, and IT chiefs have to break down these arguments swiftly to avoid intransigence.
  • Identify users’ motivations and interests, then focus intently on them to find incentives that will get people to do the right thing — that is, to think beyond their silo needs and focus on how to work within the enterprise.
  • Be persistent. Sometimes you simply have to wear people down, and “we don’t talk about that enough,” Young says. “Sometimes you just have to wait out certain individuals in an organization — wait until they leave — to get management change.”
  • Eat your own dog food. If you want the agency to adopt an automated tool or to give up a silo system, then the IT shop should do it, too — and first. At OMB, he says, there was a lot of resistance last year to making the budget electronic and, before that, to creating business-case justifications, Young says. But the 20 people in the Office of E-Gov and IT started off so they could get the 500 people across the agency to do likewise, he says.
  • Set artificial milestones. “You have to have a way to create a necessary sense of urgency that people can live with,” Young says. It helps move projects along and gives them purpose, he adds. If you fall a little short, there’s still success in what is achieved. The trick, Young says, is to set deadlines that spur action but aren’t so intense that people can’t act out of fear of failure.

As Young prepares to end his time at OMB, he says, a chief lesson learned will serve him well in the future: Authority alone can’t lead people to act. Although OMB’s E-Gov and IT Office ostensibly serves as the government’s top systems shop, it can’t get “people to act or come around because of authority.’’

Really, the past five years, he says, have mainly involved focusing on personality, battling “stalwart believers of the status quo.”