Building support for major IT initiatives

Experts on AFFIRM panel debate emerging issues in cross-government efforts

At the very outset, agencies must build a political constituency to gain support for collaborative, cross-government IT initiatives. One way to do that is by communicating the benefits of such programs to constituents, which will help gain support from Congress.

That was among the key points made at an Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM) round-table discussion on emerging issues for the federal information technology community. The annual event took place May 14 at the City Club in Washington. A copy of the AFFIRM report on this subject and an expanded version of the discussion can be found at

The participants:
Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Jack Jones
, acting chief information officer at the National Institutes of Health.

Linda Fischetti,
acting chief health informatics officer at the Veterans Health Administration.

Trey Hodgkins, senior director of defense intelligence at the Information Technology Association of America.

Mark Krzysko, assistant deputy undersecretary for Defense business transformation at the Defense Department.

Michelle Mrdeza, president of MXM Consulting and a former staff member for the House Appropriations Committee.

Chas Phillips, minority counsel to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Venkapathi Puvvada, chief technology officer at Unisys Federal and chairman of the Industry Advisory Council.

Tim Young, associate administrator of e-government and information technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

Federal Computer Week Editor-in-Chief Christopher J. Dorobek moderated the round-table discussion.

Chas, cross-cutting initiatives have had a difficult time finding support on Capitol Hill. Why is that?

One of the big issues here is the need to build a political constituency around those initiatives if you want to move them forward and get support from the Hill. What I’ve seen to date is that there is a lack of knowledge about the value of [some] these initiatives and programs. If you’re going to get the buy-in from the authorization side and the appropriations side — the policy-makers generally — there has to be a little stronger push for the end result, whether that’s improved services to the taxpayer, saving money or whatever your goal is at the end of the day. Then it’s easier to make the case for saying, “We’d like to roll this out; we think this is important; we think there is a lot that can be accomplished here; and it makes that job easier.”

Cross-agency initiatives…are here to stay. Some may not like it, but I think they’re here to stay — not because I said so or Karen [Evans, OMB administrator for e-government and information technology] said so, but because it makes good business sense. It’s a good utilization of taxpayer resources. If you look back to 2001 when we started the e-government initiatives — all 25 of them — many people didn’t take us seriously. Many agencies and some people on the Hill didn’t take us seriously. They didn’t think they could be accomplished in the estimated time that we had. As it became more apparent that this was going to be a reality, that’s when we really got resistance, and we’re still dealing with some of those challenges right now.

I think we’re now at the stage where we need to move beyond the rhetoric in terms of transformation and realize that there are a lot of difficult things that we have to have considerations for. Sometimes we just don’t have the bandwidth or the funding to address everything at once — the people and processes aspect, as well as the technical infrastructures. So we really are working, trying to have an enlightened community to tackle those issues. I think many of us want this to succeed. I know part of the topic was service-oriented architecture. Technology and new techniques will help us move into that new environment. But we’re just not quite there yet.

Citizens expect and demand that we all collaborate better. If you look at what happens in our personal lives, when you go pay bills online or when you get a service from the financial sector, people don’t care about who is responsible for what; they get the end result. This is a globalized world, so you know you have to collaborate. The expectations are [coming from] the citizens, especially the generation that is growing up leveraging technology for everyday use. You’d be amazed at how much a 5-year-old knows.

I think that one of the biggest hurdles was [previously] noted — the stovepipe through Congress, where agencies or congressional appropriations committees want to control the funding for each agency. I think when that can be resolved, we can really begin to see the funding flow the way it needs to flow, and these programs will really take root.
I think until we get adoption at the congressional level, it’s going to be difficult to continue to move forward.

I guess I’m a little more pessimistic. I think stovepiping is so deeply embedded in federal agencies that even when agency officials think they’re doing something cross-agency, it’s very difficult. So that’s not to say it can’t happen and it hasn’t happened in certain cases. But I think it’s a big, big challenge. It’s much more systemic than we believe, and it’s going to take a lot more work than I think we believe.

It’s very hard to get traction on Capitol Hill for transformation and e-gov initiatives primarily because of the long-term investment requirement. It does have a long-term tail to it. Appropriators in particular work on an annual basis. There are so many pressures and priorities to fund the current fiscal year that it’s difficult to make the commitment to fund something here that is going to have a long tail, a long mortgage. Members of the Appropriations Committee don’t see the value necessarily in terms of investment for the current fiscal year. So it’s difficult for them to buy in long-term.

I think…we’re a little bit glib about transformation. Just listening [to everyone at] the table, I believe that we really need to dramatically shift the dialogue. As long as we talk about appropriations and programs, we’re never going to get there. We need to talk about service. If we go to a discussion of service and a broader-level discussion, we are going to have to grapple with appropriations programs. But we need to have a fundamental change in definition. I think OMB is trying to make that definition [of service] stick so we can change. We all want to do right by the taxpayer, by ourselves, by our agencies, by our components. We’re working to shift the dialogue, because if we talk about the service, it can serve the appropriators and the agencies. But we’ve got to aggressively tackle [the idea] that programs are not entities within themselves but provide service to a constituency.

I would agree with that in the sense [that] we’re constantly doing business cases. Our business cases don’t talk to what is common thinking. One of the ideas that the Brits tried a decade or so ago was to think about services in terms of the citizen. Where I sit, I don’t see the discussion of who is the target for this service and how are we trying to deliver it in a way that is transformative. We’ve talked about saving money, but we’re not focused on what is going on. Who’s the target for this, and what are we trying to give them or help them do?

What federal cross-agency e-government initiatives do you consider to be successful, and why?

I would say that some have gained more traction than others. Some are more mature than others. Certainly, the lines of business are still in the agencies.

But I think that the results speak for themselves. For e-government, in the United States pre-2002, the average cost to process payroll was about 60 percent higher than it is now. There were agencies that were paying more than $400 a W-2 to process payroll with their own system for their employees. The average cost of payroll now is $125 per W-2.

In a really tight budget year, that can make a difference for an agency. I’m not saying we’re going to reduce the deficit with e-gov, because we’re not.  Frankly, I think in the early days — before my tenure — the cost-savings projections were oversold to a lot of people, including to Congress. To reiterate, the primary and sole goal of e-government was never to save money. It was always to improve service, improve access to information and improve the quality of service.
That said, we have tangible results that we can point to for improved service and cost-savings.  [Using the Internal Revenue Service’s] Free File, 3.2 million citizens last year filed their taxes for free.

Dr. Atkinson, what have you found that works well or doesn’t work well? Are there cross-cutting programs that you liked or particularly didn’t like?

ATKINSON: There are several that I like. I think is a good example. It seems to work, and it’s a relatively straightforward application. There’s one that I think doesn’t work as well, which is, which is not [part of] homeland security, but it is an interesting application. I was struck a few years ago when I went to some national park that there was nothing in any of [the park’s] brochures or signs to show that it was a key partner in So I’m not surprised that it doesn’t get a lot of hits, because it’s not marketed anywhere.

When you visit the site, it’s supposed to be a first step, but it’s not at all. It doesn’t link very well with other [state and local sites]. I heard comments earlier about [these initiatives] take a long time and all, [but] you look at what the private sector does and how long it takes Google to roll out something from beta — three months?  How long did it take Google Maps to come about? Not that long. I think some guy just decided to do Google Maps and pop, up it goes. So I don’t think it’s that hard.

PUVVADA: If you look at [programs] that are successful, I think one thing that hasn’t been talked about is good leadership. I think these initiatives were successful because people had good leadership to address the issues [that prevent success]. Service to citizens, citizen facing — when people see value in terms of what the government is providing — these tend to stick and customer satisfaction soars. We talked about saving money, which is important. I think the leadership ought to emphasize [the need for] time to implement. If a solution or service exists, even if it is not about saving money, why would you go and stand up your own payroll?  I mean, why would you do that? We’ve got to educate Congress about enabling this collaboration and understanding that it is not about thinking about what jobs are going to be lost if we shift things around.

I think the government does a lot of things well in e-gov. But I think there are other things that are just inherently more difficult, particularly some of the citizen-facing things.

DOROBEK: Are they inherently more difficult because it’s government or…why?

If you divide up the e-gov world, there is a spectrum of some things that are fairly easy to do and some things that are fairly hard to do. And I think the easier things tend to be less complicated.

I don’t think that we’re going to be able to do a lot of these things the way we want to do them. Let’s use [the private sector] rather than the government to build something. Let’s engage the private sector to be the application provider. For example, if you wanted to think about, why not open that up to any company that wants to take that data, build its own application and have it be almost like a Web 2.0 thing. You can imagine what Yahoo would do with that.

They would have not just government things, but they might have water parks and golf courses. There are lots of things that could be opened up to the private sector or the nonprofit sector in kind of a partnership way. There are some things the government can do very, very well. But I think the stuff that is more complicated, where there is more value-add, where the boundary between public and private can be vague, where you’re wanting dynamism and change — that’s not [government’s] strong suit.

Ironically, the majority of the services associated with the e-gov initiatives are commercially outsourced. is not government-owned software. — Monster owns that software. E-Travel — all three providers of E-Travel commercially outsource. So the federal government does not own a switch, a router, a database. It’s all outsourced. So the agencies just pay a service based on the number of vouchers processed.

ATKINSON: Sure, and I think that’s great for some applications where what you’re really doing is saying, “Hey, Unisys or somebody else [knows] a lot more how to do this than we will,” and…I think that makes a lot of sense for some of the back-office [function], the payroll [functions], things like that. I still think for front-office [functions though, government employees should handle those].

Whether it’s some agency or some little group in the Forest Service that is running the server or some contractor out in Reston, Va., that is running the server, to me is irrelevant. 

What I’m talking about is sort of an open [application programming interface]. Open the whole thing up. Let anybody come in, including some entrepreneur from nowhere or Google or anybody. And I just think that’s a little bit different model than just picking a vendor to do what you want.

Suppose appeared as part of Amazon and had no brand of its own. Amazon is not one thing. It’s a huge number of things. What would the government’s reaction be if I went out and started my own company, started picking up Web sites, screen-scraping them and offering them as an integrated whole for small businesses? The first thing I’d probably get is a call from a whole bunch — the Small Business Administration - saying, “What are you doing taking my Web site, removing my brand and offering it to people?” And so if you want an Amazon-like result, you’ve got to think about that.

I think we might want to look at the big question that surfaces here: What is the role of the public sector? What is the mission of government at the end of the day? Is it to provide Web site access to parks and recreation and things like that? What is the fundamental mission?

That brings in the issue of the outsourcing and the private sector. There are certain roles in our view that belong to the private sector. That [sector] should be looked to initially to serve those missions. That’s going to be a big challenge going forward, certainly, with the new Congress. There is a great deal more suspicion about outsourcing or whatever you want to call it — the private sector taking federal jobs. There is a greater deal of suspicion about the procurement process and people making money at the end of the day. You’re getting a lot of pressure from a lot of different quarters going forward.

JONES: In my observations of what has made successful initiatives, it’s been two things. One is good understanding of the basic processes that are involved and the complete processes. And then a shared vocabulary; the [data] piece, [for example]. Do we in fact all understand the data the same way? When that happens, then the initiative stands an excellent chance of success. When it doesn’t happen, then [it is] far less likely that it’s going to be successful.

DOROBEK: Congress over the years has often cut funds for these cross-agency initiatives. Michelle, you’ve been an appropriator, so how do you deal with this — agency leaders want cross-agency initiatives, and yet they also want to fund individual projects. There seems to be a real conflict there.

The funds were cut not because they were cross-agency initiatives. They were often cut because the agencies didn’t make the business case to Congress. Again, in the appropriations world, we deal on an annual basis…and it’s the most pressing priority at the time. When you look…within the context of homeland security, the e-gov initiatives are now funded out of the working capital fund for the most part. So that’s a positive step, and there is transparency, as Tim alluded to, in the process.  But I would add that transparency only came about as a result of Congress insisting on having these cross-cutting spreadsheets that displayed where the money was going and what it was going for and where it was coming from.  We’re very particular about that.

DOROBEK: So from a Hill perspective, if you were a member of Congress talking to OMB or other agencies, what would help them make their case more effectively?

MRDEZA: They have to link it to a policy, period. It’s not just about good government. There are competing priorities. When the choice is, do I fund an additional 500 Border Patrol agents, or do I fund human resource maps, or do I fund another e-gov effort, I’m
going to tell you right now, the money is going to go into Border Patrol. But the challenge is to translate this from a business perspective. These are all great things to talk about, but go and sit in front of a member of Congress, he is just going to say to you, “I don’t understand a word you are saying to me. How does this make our country safer in terms of homeland security?”

DOROBEK: Tim, when you’re presenting these things, how do you make it more clear to those outside the Washington, D.C., area that these programs matter?

YOUNG: I agree with Michelle’s point that you have to answer the question of “What’s in it for me?”, to the congressman. I worked on the Hill and I’d go to my boss with some constituent or business concern. The first question he would ask me was, “How does addressing this help us get re-elected?”
In terms of how you address the non-Washington concerns, you have to change the perspective. You can’t go in saying, “This is good government; this is what the president wants, and therefore you need to do it.” That’s the wrong answer. The right answer is, “This is the number of jobs in your district that people got from the federal government because of USAJobs.”

This administration has put a lot of teeth behind cross-agency collaboration, not because it’s great for the President’s Management Agenda, but because it’s good for citizens. But we have to change our rhetoric when we talk to [people on] the Hill. The transparency is great. We have a saying in the office — OMB Deputy Director for Management] Clay Johnson penned this one. “With transparency, you get clarity. With clarity, you get accountability. And only through accountability do you get enduring results.” What we’re trying to do when we talk to [people on] the Hill and [officials at] agencies is be very transparent and be very clear about what we’re trying to accomplish and talk about the outcomes, not the outputs. 

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