Sprehe: Why people matter

Three current developments could make it more difficult to manage federal IT systems

Three current developments spell near-term disaster for federal information technology.

The first is the aging federal workforce and the coming of what the Office of Personnel Management director calls a tidal wave of retirements. In 2004, 50- to 59-year-old federal workers accounted for one-third of the workforce. Because of those demographics, OPM projects that federal retirements will total more than 60,000 workers a year between 2005 and 2010.

In other words, the government is losing senior experts in every field — including information management and IT management — much faster than it can hire young replacements.

The second development is the deep cuts agencies have faced in their training budgets in the past several years. When budget cuts occur, training is always one of the first items zeroed out. With budgets remaining tight through the rest of the Bush administration, training opportunities for younger federal IT workers will be slim to none.

The third development is the dramatic increase in federal IT outsourcing in the past five years. That trend will continue. The market research firm Input projects that IT outsourcing work will reach $17.6 billion by 2010, which represents an increase of 8 percent a year.

As a result of these three developments, agencies are experiencing an enormous loss of senior IT employee brainpower and experience, and they are spending very little to train the next generation of IT managers.

Also, the federal government continues to hand over more of the planning, design, development and implementation of its IT systems to the private sector. Outsourcing may be good, but the rub is that agencies are still responsible for judging whether federal dollars are well spent on outsourced IT.

The trouble is that the people with the knowledge and expertise to tell whether the agency is buying sound IT systems or expensive snake oil have left the premises. They have retired, perhaps taking one of the many “early outs” that agencies have offered.

And where do federal IT retirees go? They head right for the higher-paying jobs in private firms. Then, having changed hats, they start milking their old agencies for all those outsourced IT goodies. Those firms are outbidding the government for young IT talent as well.

Increasingly, agencies have few experienced people to make the right judgments when they award billions of IT dollars to private firms. The old pros are gone, and the new kids are not being trained to know when the agency is getting swindled in IT outsourcing.

We will see the results of this demographic and budgetary disaster soon and with growing frequency.

In fact, some signs have already appeared. For example, the Justice Department inspector general recently found that the program management office for the FBI’s Sentinel investigative case management system was staffed with only 51 of the 76 employees the FBI said were necessary to run the program.

Which multibillion-dollar federal IT program will be next to fail because the agency no longer has the IT management employees to evaluate and monitor the outsourced program adequately? Stay tuned, because workforce demographics and the lack of training resources guarantee that a failure is just around the corner.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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