Memo to OMB: Don't be a lame duck

Low expectations are hardly an asset for the incoming leadership at the Office of Management and Budget.

But with the recent or coming loss of several key OMB officials — and with the presidential election little more than a year away — Washington, D.C., observers worry that the Bush administration's aggressive work could give way to lame-duck inertia.

The big concern, they say, is perception.

Insiders gave the Bush administration high marks for appointing Joshua Bolten OMB director after Mitchell Daniels Jr. announced his departure in May. And they applauded the choice of Karen Evans to replace Mark Forman as administrator of OMB's Office of E-Government and Information Technology.

Still, given the additional departures of Norman Lorentz, OMB's chief technology officer, and Angela Styles, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, some uncertainty about the agency's direction is unavoidable.

Asked to provide advice for the new team, observers representing various groups within the federal IT community, said overcoming that uncertainty was imperative.

Their overarching concern is the President's Management Agenda, the Bush administration's five-pronged approach to improving how agencies manage operations. Daniels, Forman and Lorentz had made a concerted effort to advance this agenda in many ways.

Management score cards, business case studies and cross-agency funding have become part of the drill for agency IT executives. But observers agree that officials could quickly lose focus if they sense a lack of interest from OMB managers.

The general consensus is that the management agenda is worth pursuing. But that's not to say that success will come easily.

Industry Advisory Council: Maintain forward motion

Bob Woods, chairman of the Industry Advisory Council, is concerned about momentum. OMB's outgoing leadership generated a lot of energy around several main initiatives, and that should not be allowed to dissipate, he said.

A wholesale changing of the guard at any agency — to say nothing of a White House office — creates a lot of doubt. "Sometimes programs backslide," Woods said. "Sometimes they just come to a halt."

Government and industry officials may assume that the new team will simply toe the line until the end of this administration — so Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management, Evans and the others must show that work is still proceeding and things are getting done, Woods said.

"They are battling a stereotypical caretaker image," he said.

E-government, one of the more successful initiatives of the past two years, could pose several challenges. The outgoing team got numerous e-government systems under way, but the big payoff will come only when those systems and services are fully in place.

During the past six to eight months, Forman and Lorentz repeatedly mentioned that shutting down legacy systems would be the next big step, but now the new team will actually be flipping the switch, which will cause plenty of pushback from agencies, users and industry, Woods said.

Likewise, OMB officials must battle the perception that e-government, which lacks congressional funding, is not important. The Bush administration can pay for many initiatives by redirecting dollars, but that misses the point.

"I wouldn't sit around arguing the finer points of enterprise architecture," Woods said. "I would fight to establish [e-government] as something deserving of a budget."

The key, he said, is communication. OMB must explain the purpose and benefits of each of the administration's initiatives, he said.

Agency officials, from Lorentz to Johnson, have admitted that they have not done a wonderful job communicating with Congress, but that is not the only audience OMB must address.

"They've got to communicate 'til they drop," Woods said. "No matter how strong or weak your agenda is, if nobody knows what it is, then it's lost.... You can't overdo it."

Coalition for Government Procurement: No time for compromise

Now is not the time for OMB to take a low-key approach to its agenda, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, an industry group.

The Bush administration must quickly hire replacements for the departed officials, but should not be swayed by political expediency.

"It starts with the people they bring in," Allen said. "There is a tendency any time that you are near the end of your first term...to play it safe and go with people in acting capacities." The administration might "wait until after an election to make a new round of appointments, [but] in the meantime, important work doesn't get done."

Allen, a Republican, also said the administration should look for like minds to fill the roles. "I would look for people who are good partisan loyalists, but also experienced in the jobs they are being asked to fill," he said. "Those types of people do exist. They just may not be in [President Bush's] inner circle."

Allen also would like to see the agency stop what he considers kowtowing to Democrats and other non-GOP interests by, among other things, consulting with Ralph Nader, consumer advocate and 2000 Green Party presidential candidate, on an acquisition database.

"Learn from your experience," Allen said. "In attempting to win over your enemies, you've irked your traditional allies and in the process, you have haven't won over your enemies.... You bring in Ralph Nader as an adviser. You get a result that's not going to get the Naderites to vote for you, and you've [angered] the businesses that would have to foot the bill, your traditional constituency."

OMB also should stand for a Republican-style small government, he added.

"Dare to be yourself," Allen said. "If you're for streamlined government, government on a reduced scale, support rules and regulations that bring that about.... Don't look for ways to re-regulate things."

A prime example is OMB's efforts to support small-business contracting. "All the well-intentioned small-business provisions on bundling and things of that nature are provisions that would rob Peter to pay Paul," he said. "The result would not be government that is more efficient. It would be government with more rules."

Allen also faulted the agency for continuing to tinker with items such as the revised Circular A-76. After OMB published the circular's final version, which governs competitive sourcing, officials continued to consider changes to it, Allen said.

"Have the courage of your convictions," he said. "After you have listened to all sides and gotten the input that you want, after you've made a decision, stick to it." With A-76, "when there was any type of criticism from [Congress, OMB] wilted under the pressure. That lost them points on a number of fronts."

Possibly the worst consequence of OMB's behavior was a perceived slight on the part of federal employees and others who had offered comments, Allen said. "An awful lot of people put an awful lot of time into making recommendations, and to retreat from that is a repudiation of the hours that the rank and file put in," he said.

Council for Excellence in Government: Keep agenda intact

If the President's Management Agenda were a restaurant menu, Dave McClure would argue that agenda items not be offered ala carte.

OMB officials have done a good job of selling agencies on the management agenda as a cohesive vision, and they should stick to that plan, said McClure, vice president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government.

"There is a comfort level right now with people beginning to see the value of it," he said. "If you don't stop in midstream, then you've got a chance of making a difference."

A staple of this vision is the business case. True, some agency officials would be pleased if the new team eased up a bit, but "as painful as they may be, as incomplete as the process for developing [business cases] may be, they are critical," McClure said.

The business case's virtue is its focus on results. OMB officials need to make results part of every discussion they have with agencies about technology programs.

"That needs to be hammered at repeatedly," he said.

And enterprise architecture, which can show the link between an investment and its result, is the essential ingredient.

"If we lose momentum in the enterprise architecture direction, we will lose momentum in the IT arena," McClure said.

Professional Services Council: Defuse the debate about outsourcing

Clearly, the Bush administration's competitive sourcing concept — enabling the private sector to compete for more government work — has become divisive.

But the rhetoric does not necessarily match the reality, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a national trade association representing the professional and technical services industry.

"The government is not going to be outsourced," he said. "It's part of the mythology.... It still is less than one-quarter of the federal workforce." Critics, meanwhile, insist "the sky is falling."

OMB officials should explain their concept of outsourcing and its ramifications for the federal workforce, he said.

The agency is well on the way to reforming its team, with the appointment of Bolten and Evans, so it should be able to push ahead with many issues. But replacing Styles could be tougher, Soloway said.

"We are in a period of time when it is very difficult to get anyone confirmed," he said. "We are in the midst of a heavy-duty debate about outsourcing. That creates a pretty interesting challenge."

But the challenge must be met. The administration is "now in the middle of a vicious guerilla war and it needs people to step in because the potential damage is so great," Soloway said.

Still, outsourcing is not the council's only concern. Soloway would like to see the Bush administration focus on its workforce — the people who execute OMB policies. Many such people are program managers who need training opportunities. "They are very much on the front lines," he said.

He also believes OMB should continue to support small businesses and not let major contractors snatch up everything.

Project On Government Oversight: Begin backtracking

Officials at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a watchdog group, would be unhappy to see OMB maintain its present course. The agency, said Danielle Bryan, POGO's executive director, lost its way a while back.

Bryan believes OMB was headed in the right direction when Daniels came on board, and credits Styles for her focus on increased competition and oversight in contracting.

But something went wrong.

"The early days of [the Bush administration's] OMB, from the perspective of procurement, had been pretty positive" — much better than the Clinton administration's OMB, Bryan said. "If only we could get [Styles' OFPP replacement] to have the same agenda she came in with, we'd be thrilled. [But] I fear that it was that agenda and its unpopularity that caused her to leave."

Contractors rebelled, and even sometime-ally Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) opposed some procurement issues, Bryan said, so Styles' replacement will have to have more political stature. The agency caved in to pressure too easily with Styles aboard, she said. "You could almost see from one day to the next a reversal in their views."

Not only will Styles' replacement need to be more muscular, but success will depend on support from higher-ups, including Bolten.

"When you have the predictable complaints from contractors who have been benefiting from the system, you need to be able to go back to the boss," Bryan said. "Mitch Daniels echoed the same agenda [as Styles], and that may be why he's gone."

Bryan also blames OMB for putting a squeeze on public access to government information under the Bush administration. Forman was open to discussion about those issues, she said, but now he too is gone.

Although OMB officials do not set policies on information access, "they are the people telling agencies what access policies to implement," she said. "What they're doing is creating a movement of distrust in government. OMB is central in that."

Bryan would also like to see agencies put more procurement information online. "They have been reasonably supportive of e-government efforts, and we are very supportive of those," she said. Procurement information has "become less of a priority than maybe it was before" the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Information Technology Association of America: Play up your strengths

For Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, the Bush administration's emphasis on the "M" in OMB has been an important part of moving forward.

The White House's commitment means competent people always will be on the job, even with the departures of Forman, Lorentz, Daniels and Mark Everson, former OMB deputy director of management and now Internal Revenue Service commissioner.

"Obviously, there's been quite a bit of turnover, and the need is there to replenish the management team," Miller said. "But I think it comes from the top. It comes from [President Bush's] commitment to management."

He acknowledged that Bush may have a hard time convincing top management executives to come into government for what could be just a one-year post.

"If you are trying to recruit from private industry, it's a little harder sell," he said. "To come in with one year left is a little tougher. But there are still a lot of people who would love to do government service."

Until Bush came into office, the management side of OMB has always played second fiddle. "Rarely has it come to the forefront," Miller said. "Rarely have we had a president with a business background. That does make a difference."

Even so, he said, OMB officials must continue emphasizing such areas as cybersecurity, because hackers are a growing threat to both governmental and nongovernmental systems.

"It needs to be a higher priority," Miller said. "A lot of momentum has been lost" both outside and inside government.

OMB also should not fear withholding funds from programs that lack focus — what he calls the "atomic bomb" of program oversight.

Agency leaders must look even more seriously at outsourcing government contracts because "the boulders are already rolling down the hill," he said.

Many companies worldwide are outsourcing, creating jobs across the economy — so keeping work in government just to preserve jobs does not make sense. The government, Miller said, is not a very good IT company.

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