Management

Agencies address the 'people problems' of shared services

Rick Holgate

A top-down approach to implementing shared services can exacerbate difficulties for employees trying to adapt, says ATF CIO Richard Holgate. (FCW file photo)

The push for shared services is often framed as a technical challenge, but to Customs and Border Patrol CTO Wolf Tombe, the first step is always the people. And the resistance within his agency often resembles the four stages of grief.

"You can never discount the cultural resistance factor," said Tombe, who along with several others discussed shared services on May 20 at the ACT-IAC Management of Change Conference. "You have to account for it, and plan for how you're going to manage it."

Tombe's bureau is the largest user of the Department of Homeland Security's shared email service, and he said his office is pushing a wide range of shared services for other IT needs. But every time a service is proposed, he said, there are those in his agency who swear that they "will never use that new service."

"That's denial," Tombe said. "Then they come back and say, 'Okay, I'll do this, but can we wait until next year?' That's negotiation."

Deborah Johnson, a consultant who works with intelligence agencies on shared services, recognized the pattern, and noted: "Once you get to the negotiating phase, they're starting to see the light."

And acceptance rarely comes without at least a brief stop in the anger phase, Tombe said. "A lot of people get explosively angry. You can't take that personally -- it's a stage they're going through."

Successfully implementing shared services requires more than grief counseling, of course, but Dale Luddeke, senior vice president and chief growth officer for TASC, stressed that "shared services is more a people problem than a technology problem."

Richard Holgate, CIO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, agreed, and argued that a top-down approach to shared services can exacerbate those people problems. When an agency identifies an available service that it does not currently have, as was the case with ATF and human resources management systems nearly a decade ago, IT leaders often become customers of another agency's service -- in that instance, the Treasury Department's H.R. system.

But when a department-wide mandate comes from on high, Holgate said, agencies or offices are disinclined to give up their own solutions for a shared service that may be seen as a lowest common denominator.

"Up until a year ago, we had 23 different email systems in DOJ," Holgate said. "Many of which had 1,000 or fewer users -- prime candidate for consolidation. But we had to make sure all the stakeholders had their questions and concerns addressed. We did a good job, but didn't cover all the bases."

"It's a challenge," Holgate admitted. Whereas shared-service email entails a per-user fee, "a lot of our smaller components supported their email internally, so the cost was staff. And it felt to them that the cost was zero."

Tombe cited similar challenges at DHS. "We didn't know how much it cost to provide email," he said, "and it was really hard to find out."

Ultimately, Tombe said, the department turned to an outside consultant to determine DHS' baseline costs -- and confirmed that the hardware and software expenses were "a fraction" of the staffing costs were. Yet "the fine-grained analysis took about a year and a half to do," he said.

Despite those difficulties, Tombe said that fiscal realities are helping to overcome even the staunchest resistance. Four years ago, he said, CBP's IT budget was $1.2 billion, but it's now $650 million and dropping."

"We cannot possibly fund the current operating infrastructure we have now," Tombe declared.

Holgate agreed. "The current fiscal environment is a big motivator," he said.

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Reader comments

Tue, May 21, 2013 Bill St Louis

Call it for what is. A way to reduce staff by picking the low hanging fruit. And never complain how hard it is to attract talent down the road.

Tue, May 21, 2013 OccupyIT

I think that the case for shared services, which is obvious, would be better served if CIOs hadn't spent all their political capital ignoring the actual mission of the agency and confusing that with what is commodity IT infrastructure. Make the plumbing go away and don't destroy the ability of program offices to actually execute program. Its one of the biggest moral downers for Feds right now - program resources gobbled up by CIOs under the guise of shared services. Then blank stares from CIO when asked where the program services are...

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