Jan 29 2010

IT Management in Focus

The Obama administration's dashboard sheds light on IT projects, but is that light bright enough?

Having spent well over 30 years around federal IT, both in government and as a consultant, I have been party to countless discussions and studies that have improving IT management as a central theme. The effort continues to this day.

Now that the Obama administration has been in office for a year, some strategies for how it will address this challenge are beginning to gain visibility. This is a good juncture to examine these efforts. But first, let’s take a quick look back at the key drivers that led to where we find federal IT management today.

The Big Eras

The history of IT management in the government can be broadly slotted into two significant eras. The first began with passage of the Brooks Act in 1972 and the second with the Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996.

Congress passed the Brooks Act at a time when IT was highly centralized in government. In the early 1970s, mainframe computing was the singular computing alternative, and IT shops centrally controlled computing resources and their use through time-sharing arrangements.

The Brooks Act introduced a centralized management environment for federal IT. Before acquiring technology products and services, agencies needed to receive delegations of procurement authority from the General Services Administration, which passed judgment on agencies’ plans for acquiring and using IT. GSA also was responsible for monitoring the IT implemented based on those approved investments.

The evolution of IT in the late 1970s and early 1980s drastically changed the computing environment the Brooks Act had been designed to address and manage. With the introduction of PCs and local area networks, which decentralized IT use and management, and the acceleration in innovation that compressed the cycle time for new products and significantly shortened effective acquisition windows, the central control environment of the Brooks Act could no longer keep pace.

The lack of effective management of the large amounts the government was spending on IT became visible by the early 1990s. Sen. William Cohen published “Computer Chaos,” an investigative report that chronicled IT management problems and led to the enactment of the Clinger-Cohen Act.

The law established the CIO position reporting to each agency head, mandated the establishment and use of basic IT management practices, addressed the acquisition process to streamline it and called for changes to encourage innovation.

A third statute, the E-Government Act of 2002, also has helped define the IT management environment. The key impact of the E-Gov Act was to strengthen the authority of the Office of Management and Budget in overseeing federal IT.

“The dashboard looks to be a useful new IT management tool.” — Paul Wohlleben

By the Dashboard Light

The Obama administration has introduced a new tool, the Federal IT Dashboard, to the government’s IT management toolkit.

The dashboard improves the information flow and capabilities around federal IT projects and the government’s IT spend. It provides better access to information collected through the IT budget exhibits 53 and 300 submitted to OMB and to project-specific data such as cost and schedule stats. Additionally, CIOs must provide risk evaluations for each project reported in the dashboard.

Through the use of the Federal IT Dashboard, the administration hopes to leverage one of its key themes, transparency, and make information regarding government more accessible. The hope is that such efforts will foment public engagement and improve government decisions and results.

Despite some current shortcomings, most notably regarding data quality, the dashboard looks to be a useful new IT management tool. With appropriate attention, it should improve the information flow regarding key IT projects. In and of itself, however, the dashboard does not improve the skills and methods required by project managers to deliver the desired results.

Are We There Yet?

After a dozen years of progressive activity to improve federal IT management, a pair of operative questions remains: Is the foundation sound? Can we deliver planned IT results and benefits? Unfortunately, the answer to both is no.

Why? There are a couple of factors that have yet to be addressed.

First, most agencies don’t just manage a single IT project; they oversee portfolios of IT projects, many of which have interdependencies. Because of that fact, project managers need better tools and training to deal with the complexities these interdependencies create.

Second, despite the creation of business management and IT councils in agencies, CIOs have not achieved effective governance over federal IT. Such a process would enable CIOs to manage scope on projects and to mitigate the effect of cross-project interdependencies. That requires the involvement of senior agency executives to make the trade-offs necessary to avoid scope creep. But this level of IT governance does not exist in most agencies today.

And so, the work to improve IT management in government continues.