COMMENTARY

Why best practices won't fix federal IT

Dennis D. McDonald is an independent management consultant in Alexandria, Va.

In December 2010, federal CIO Vivek Kundra released an ambitious "25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management." No. 10 on that list is: "Launch a best practices collaboration platform."

As Kundra explains: "Within six months, the federal CIO Council will develop a collaboration portal to exchange best practices, case studies, and allow for real-time problem solving. To institutionalize this best practice sharing, agency [program managers] will submit post-implementation reviews of their major program deliveries to the portal. These reviews will populate a searchable database of synthesized and codified program management best practices that all PMs can access."

Of those three proposed elements, I put my money on real-time problem-solving as having the best short-term potential for improving IT. Documenting best practices would be a waste of time and money.

The reason is simple. By the time you document a best practice — assuming you can convince time-pressed employees to document completed projects and their effects — the problem, event, process or solution will have changed. Yes, the resulting archive might have training, education and planning value. But will it really contribute to solving a serious existing problem, such as how best to use technology to provide more services with fewer resources?

A more attainable short-term goal would be to make the expertise of knowledgeable people discoverable and available — regardless of where, organizationally, that expertise resides. After all, when you have a problem, wouldn't it be better if you could identify an experienced expert and contact him or her directly rather than search through a database of outdated documents?

My career has included many projects that involved building electronic documentation and retrieval systems. But times have changed. In recent years, we've seen a rapid growth in the availability of cloud-based IT services, along with the rising use of social networking services, such as Facebook and Twitter. When adapted to satisfy security and privacy requirements, such systems can greatly simplify making and managing relationships and using them to exchange information in near-real time.

The speed with which information can now be exchanged through established relationships, even those as lightweight as a Facebook friend, far exceeds what's possible through constructing, maintaining and using a formally structured database that references past experience. The beneficial aspects of social networks could, to some extent, replace some of our old-fashioned ideas about the need for centralized, highly structured, and expensive knowledge and document management systems.

The power of professional networking over our old systems is the difference between talking with an expert and finding a document that expert wrote six months ago.

However, for such networking to take place in the context of federal IT operations, serious barriers will need to be confronted and dismantled. It’s still common to encounter resistance to doing things in new ways or consulting people from outside one’s office, agency or program.

Those barriers are not trivial, and you'll often find passionate explanations for why they exist. But, as the song says, the times they are a-changing, and the Deficit Monster is demanding that we cut government spending while doing more.

We should start by making it easier for federal employees to take advantage of technology-enabled systems that facilitate collaboration, sharing and problem solving.

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Reader comments

Tue, Mar 8, 2011 Roland Shield Auburn, CA

A Funny Hat Trick: >> "Wearing my taxpayer hat, I'd fire the manager that refused to share since I care less about organizational loyalties than getting a return on my taxpayer dollars." When Taxpayers have a more direct method of affecting bureaucratic meanderings, such as hiring and firing, we will all enjoy the Government we aspire to. Trouble is, it don't work that way. That indeed is *the* problem. >> "..Person A who becomes more useful through cooperating with others, and promoting Person B who refuses to cooperate, I'll choose Person A if my management is looking at how useful my program is." That is all well and good, Dennis. But you are not in charge of hiring and firing so your words have very little meaning, if any...

Wed, Feb 9, 2011 Mario Macaluso

I think that you are correct in that Mr. Kundra’s intent for no. 10 is more focused on “collaboration” than “best practice.” It is through the collaboration that we are able to identify or create a best practice. Collaboration tools don’t have to be expensive or take long to implement. They are readily available and can be low cost. You talked about barriers in the Federal Government, but I believe the Federal Government has fewer barriers to intellectual collaboration than industry. Federal agencies don’t compete with one another the way the private sector does. Federal program managers are encouraged to freely share information with one another.

Tue, Feb 8, 2011 Dennis McDonald Alexandria, Virginia

Walt, wearing my project manager hat I agree it's difficult. No one wants to give up resources. Wearing my taxpayer hat, I'd fire the manager that refused to share since I care less about organizational loyalties than getting a return on my taxpayer dollars. Jaime, if I have a choice between promoting Person A who becomes more useful through cooperating with others, and promoting Person B who refuses to cooperate, I'll choose Person A if my management is looking at how useful my program is.

Sat, Feb 5, 2011 W.S. Dyer College Park, MD

There will always be a need for a method of time shifting in order for collaboration with experts and other very busy people. There is also a deep need for searchable best practices database that provides a place for practitioners to go 'read up on' other similar solutions in support of their present challenges. The big difficulty with a real time support system is that the folks who know the answers are so busy that they will not be responsive. They cant afford to be. There is no way for them to shift from their money making endeavors to their 'hobby' support without potentially splitting their 'allegiance' and their pay. The ability to perhaps develop a pool of experts to provide the support needed may be a noble provision, but in times of tight budgets organizations are much less cavalier with the use of their people and often budget pressure supercedes the desire to provide support for outside organizations regardless of how noble the purpose. I hate being an apologist for the status quo however I do understand (and have in the past made) the argument. Walter S. Dyer III

Sat, Feb 5, 2011 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Having federal employees being able to facilitate collaboration, sharing and problem solving, combined with industry, can create a powerful dynamic for improving not only acquisitions, but program management as well. This is exactly how Acquisition 2.0 moves into Contract Management and Program Management 2.0. Best practices are one thing, but constant evolution and problem solving creates an environment of learning and knowledge transfer critical to improving government management. Programs start of as requirements, and this is where failures in government begin. Collaboration and communication are currently poor between industry and government, which creates poor requirements and difficult environments to succeed. Combined with little information exchange internally, only breaking down these barriers can help shift the culture of risk-aversion, stagnation, and program failures to one where best practices can be actually have the desired effect on changing performance.

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