Aug 03 2011

Observations from the Field

As Vivek Kundra leaves his post and the next TechStat review nears, here is one insider's look at the status of the 25-point IT reform plan.

If you work in federal IT and have not spent the past six months undersea in a nuclear submarine (or, worse yet, stranded on a deserted island), then you are likely aware of the Obama administration's "25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management."

The plan does a stellar job of laying out the administration's priorities and providing a roadmap of the steps to be taken to reach the stated goals. The plan's clarity has signaled to both government and industry where to focus their efforts.

To briefly summarize, the administration has two overarching objectives:

  • One is to "achieve operational efficiency." The strategy for achieving this objective chiefly hinges on data center consolidation and cloud computing adoption. This objective depends on making contracts available to move to cloud computing and for jump-starting some shared services.
  • The other is to "effectively manage large-scale IT programs." Here, the strategy calls for improving program managers, improving IT acquisition management, better aligning the budget process to the technology cycle, improving IT governance and increasing engagement with industry.

The plan signaled the administration's intent to continue to promote openness and transparency in reporting progress through the TechStat review process, identifying assessment checkpoints for six, 12 and 18 months after the December publication. Now that the Office of Management and Budget has issued the first progress assessment, here are a few observations.

Creating Focus

Federal IT's scope is immense in terms of the budget, staff, infrastructure, systems and industry that support it. The most important actions that OMB can take are those that focus on communicating, educating and monitoring or enforcing common strategies that result in federal IT moving in the chosen direction.

Although that's Leadership 101 — basic, simple and timeless — it's not a slam-dunk. Any centrally directed strategy must contend with individual agendas, agency priorities that conflict with it, budget concerns, a lack of understanding by some key players and a lack of trust by others. The status quo is very powerful, even if it delivers underwhelming results.

The departing U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra, his staff and the CIO Council deserve kudos for their efforts to craft and launch the plan. It's clear that significant collaboration was required during the plan's development and that much effort was dedicated to explaining it to those affected. And it is also clear that as a result, the federal IT community understands what is expected of it and is focusing effort on the common strategy.

Clear Priorities

Although the initiative is titled "25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management," it's more appropriate to consider it a statement of policy direction than an executable plan.

First, OMB does not execute; OMB issues policies and strategies, and then holds agencies accountable. Agencies must translate the strategy into executable projects and manage the daily tasks of implementing those projects. Second, there are far too many points in the plan to execute well, and it is clear that all points are not of equal priority, of equal difficulty in terms of implementation or of equal value in terms of how each contributes to achieving the overall objectives.

Illustration: Elizabeth Hinshaw
"The status quo is very powerful, even if it delivers underwhelming results."
— Paul Wohlleben

The administration has signaled its top priorities among the 25 items by what it chooses to focus its attention on and by what it chooses to discuss publically.

To date, most of the attention has focused on data center consolidation, cloud computing and the TechStat review process. These are clearly the top priorities — in part because these elements are the most discussed and focused on, and because these elements hold the prospect of delivering more value over the near term in the form of costs saved and failures minimized.

Measuring Progress

The government's IT leadership team has signaled that it understands that measurement and accountability are critical components in making sure that agencies deliver the intended results.

Progress on the reform initiatives in the plan is being closely and publically tracked, and part of the communications strategy involves the issuing of formal report cards every six months.

Continued commitment to reporting the facts — both good and bad — and the discipline to carry reporting forward until completion of each reform initiative is important. As we know from experience in Washington, it is easy to become distracted and move off course as each new crisis lands on your plate.

<p>Photo: Eva Serrabassa/Getty Images</p>