May 22 2014

How IT Projects Can Fail Fast and Succeed

At EEOC, communication was key to launching a governmentwide IT portal.

You don’t have to look far for watchdog reports about failing IT projects. But rarely do you read about agencies failing fast and overcoming their challenges.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a compelling story. In 2012, the EEOC began deploying a governmentwide portal for electronically submitting and collecting federal EEO data from hundreds of agencies. The Federal Sector EEO Portal was created to automate what had been a manual process for collecting agency data.

“I couldn’t believe it when I sat down with the office director and found out that not only was it manual processes, but there was a lot of duplication and a tremendous amount of effort,” EEOC Chief Information Officer Kimberly Hancher said at the GITEC Summit 2014 in Baltimore. EEOC employees back then had to manually enter into their systems data originally produced by the agencies as electronic files.

EEOC is responsible for collecting and analyzing federal workforce demographics and data about employee complaints, which help to identify potential discriminatory policies or practices at federal agencies.

“It was crazy and ripe for automation,” Hancher said while gesturing to a diagram of the old process.

The EEOC director held a meeting with more than 300 federal EEOC offices. They discussed requirements and the current reporting process and identified the red tape and activities that did not add value and needed to be eliminated. “It became clear that by automating the data collection, it would give analysts more time to work with data and identify barriers and triggers in terms of hiring, promotions and other personnel actions,” she said.

In developing the new portal, EEOC provided several mechanisms for agencies to submit data, depending on their size. The system was built using open source software and has more than 1,000 users.

“The only way that we could really afford to do this was to use open source, both for the web services and for the analytics,” Hancher said. The agency used agile methods to develop the portal incrementally and get user feedback throughout the development cycle. But that did not make the project fail-proof.

“We had several failures along the way,” Hancher noted.

The first iteration of the system used Google Apps, but it wasn’t the right tool for the project. Then EEOC used the Office of Management and Budget’s MAX Collect tool, but the system couldn't support EEOC's need for a robust data collection portal.

Hancher said continuous communication with project stakeholders was vital. The office within EEOC that spearheaded the effort “was truly active in sponsoring the project,” in terms of gathering requirements and making the most of limited resources.

Hancher highlighted the project’s critical success factors: strong partnerships among stakeholders, mechanisms to receive continuous feedback early and often, and self-service features within the application that give users more autonomy.