Dec 31 2009

Navigating Change

With Congress switching sides, make sure your IT team is ready, willing and able to keep projects on track.

It’s hard enough to keep your programs on track when you have consistent leadership in Congress, but try getting projects accomplished when the majority and minority flip parties. The bottom line, say federal CIOs, is that you have to try.

“The first priority for all of us is to make sure — day-to-day — that the change doesn’t hit the department because you have to support the public,” says Transportation Department CIO Daniel G. Mintz. “I try to ease the tension by making our initiatives collegial decisions, meaning that we have the staff involved as much as possible.”

There will be philosophical changes, but the extent of those changes and their effect on major systems initiatives will not become clear until further on in the year, says Olga Grkavac, executive vice president, public sector, for the Information Technology Association of America.

The trickiest thing will be figuring out any near-term IT investments, she says: “How much should they invest in something that might not last?”

But agencies’ senior managers should expect that major overarching initiatives will continue, says Kevin Plexico, executive vice president of information services for the consulting firm Input. Particularly, he expects that e-government initiatives and Lines of Business programs will maintain momentum and might even gain some new funding support from lawmakers.

“The LOBs have legs because driving efficiencies is an apolitical type of thing,” he says.

Although the same could be true for some IT spending, Plexico expects that there will be delays and changes for more than a few major systems projects at agencies across the government.

Even so, says Mintz, “the biggest challenge is just trying to keep your technology up-to-date. It can frustrate staff when you’re going without technology that you need.”

What that means for systems chiefs is that they must keep IT projects moving and also help assuage their staffs’ worries, says Charles Havekost, CIO for the Health and Human Services Department.

The CIO must begin by taking pressure off the staff, by explaining that IT is only a piece of the puzzle and that the staff shouldn’t feel complete responsibility for a project losing steam, he says.

“From an IT perspective, we’re not the driver of these projects,” Havekost says. “We’re just a supporting part, and slowing down or holding off on a particular strategy are just facts of life we have to handle in our business.”

One way to deal with this is to acknowledge team members who have contributed to a project that will be put on hold. They won’t see the payoff at the finish line, but taking them aside and thanking them for their work at least keeps them motivated, says Havekost.

W. Hord Tipton, who recently retired as Interior Department CIO, says it’s sometimes the system owners who CIOs truly have to console. “I remember when we wanted desperately to have an enterprise e-mail messaging system for the department that had one central operating system. But when we took a cut in the consumer budget, we had to back off and convert four different messaging systems. It was a blow, believe me.”

No Guarantees

Fred Thompson, vice president of management and technology for the Council of Excellence in Government, is quick to note that congressional change guarantees one thing only: uncertainty.

“Nobody knows the impact of this congressional change, so you can’t worry too much about programs being dismissed,” he says. No matter what, sitting on one’s hands is never the answer. “This may be a good chance to take those projects you’ve been neglecting and give them the attention they deserve. We naturally have some projects that interest us more than others, so it’s easy for a few to fall by the wayside.”

Thompson also points out that change can often open up new opportunities. In fact, sometimes a reversal of congressional power can surge certain programs ahead that otherwise were stalled. “Democrats may make some of these things doable,” he says. “Maybe instead of thinking of your projects as doomed, look for the ones that are in step with the change in congressional philosophy and run with them.”

Tipton even sees an upside for projects that see their budgets shrink. The IT leader then has the opportunity to ask whether the effort is really achieving the most on a dollar basis, he says.

“It’s amazing how when we have a smaller budget, we still find a way to get things done,” Tipton says. “Look at all your programs and decide whether you’re meeting the budget challenge or are being lazy with your spending. Also, a lower budget doesn’t have to mean abandoning a project. Downsizing to a third of the objective can still accomplish a great deal. Try for what’s possible with the resources and time; challenge yourself to make the most of what you have instead of just giving up.”

Think Short Term

Thompson says a new Congress may look for immediate results, so one way to keep the IT staff focused is to look for immediate areas of return, rather than systems investments that can take five years to show benefits. “Break down programs into smaller increments and try to take on that corporate mentality of thinking about what you can produce in a fiscal year,” he suggests. “If you were to switch from major systems-integration efforts and new rollouts to areas like network systems, servers and storage, there are opportunities for a payback in one or two years. There’s something to be said for seeing the end of what you start.”