Lisagor: Surviving reviews

Some people probably would rather watch paint dry than read about preparing Exhibit 300s for the Office of Management and Budget. However, if you're one of the thousands of government program managers who are struggling to prepare their fiscal 2006 budget submissions, this is a compelling topic. And most of the useful tips shared during a recent panel discussion on program management at the E-Gov Government Solutions Forum, which I moderated, would enhance any information technology project's planning and execution.

OMB scores project business cases in 10 categories. A successful Exhibit 300 will convince the OMB reviewer that all significant project risks in those categories have been analyzed and mitigated. An integrated team of experts usually is necessary to help ensure that these risks are thoroughly analyzed.

Program managers who receive high scores with a relatively low pain threshold share certain characteristics. Most likely, they already have performed a thorough technical, cost and schedule project analysis and are able to leverage this documentation and the associated best practices and business processes into the Exhibit 300 template.

They err on the side of completeness and substance. They respond positively and carefully to every question and avoid the use of N/A, or not applicable. If their project doesn't fit neatly into an Exhibit 300 formula — for instance, the use of operations analysis vs. earned value — they explain why and how. They also avoid inconsistencies among different sections, which occur when project managers try to force-fit existing documentation and metrics.

Of equal importance is that the Exhibit 300 "sell" the reviewer. The project business case is a great opportunity to provide a consistent message about the benefits of the project to all the stakeholders, including the system's users.

On the other hand, it's important not to promise too much. The benefits of IT modernization are much more difficult for government agencies to quantify. Wherever possible, it can be more effective to relate IT expenditures to enhanced services for citizens as opposed to staff reductions.

Some ongoing legacy IT systems might not have the necessary documentation or metrics to support the highly analytical OMB budget process. This can be a frustrating experience for program managers, but it's an opportunity to evaluate older systems to determine whether they're still meeting mission requirements or find out if there are more beneficial alternatives that should be considered.

Exhibit 300s are not for the faint of heart, but it appears they will continue to be a necessary part of federal IT project management. It can be a tiresome exercise for more experienced project managers because much of the process is duplicative of good project documentation. But with any luck it will dramatically reduce the number of projects that end up in the graveyard of IT shipwrecks.

Lisagor is program co-chairman for the E-Gov Program Management Summit. As the president of Celerity Works, he helps IT executives accelerate and manage business growth. He can be reached at lisagor@celerityworks.com.

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