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By Steve Kelman

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Continuity after Kundra

Just recently -- in the context of expressing some displeasure at the failure of the Obama administration to continue emphasizing the effort that the first Bush administration started to spread the use of performance-based contracting -- I blogged about the importance of continuity across political appointees in trying to implement management reforms in government.

Making major management reforms in government takes time. Ironically, one problem is that such reforms are often not partisan. That sounds good, but it means that when new political appointees rush to eliminate what the previous politicals have done, it just creates "flavor-of-the-month" cynicism among career employees and diminishes the willingness of the career folks to work on any management improvement initiatives politicals promote.

Though I didn't mention it in the previous blog, I remember my annoyance when the Bush folks arrived in 2001 that  within days they dismantled any mention or trace of the Clinton/Gore administration's "reinventing government" effort. It was, so to speak, bush league.
 
Well, when I wrote the previous blog, I had no idea that the issue of continuity in management reform was about to be raised in a very dramatic way for the federal IT community by the departure of federal CIO Vivek Kundra.
 
From my perspective, there are two major management reforms associated with Kundra that involve long-term and big changes in how federal IT operates, and both are very much works in progress.  One is the TechStat meetings to assess progress in major IT projects. The second is the Office of Management and Budget's 25-point plan for improving federal IT project success, with particular emphasis on improving program management and on agile software development. (For a number of reasons, I rank Kundra's "transparency" initiatives, which are the sexiest of his efforts to the world outside of the IT community, as less significant.)
 
In neither case is the success of these initiatives assured, particularly the second, which involves very significant alterations in how the government manages major IT projects.
 
Now the administration will need to name a new CIO. My view is that one prime qualification for the person to be selected is his or her commitment to continuity on these major Kundra initiatives. If we can't even get continuity within one administration — if the temptations to make a mark by de-emphasizing the old and emphasizing some new "signature initiatives" is too great — then what are the realistic chances for ever getting continuity across administrations?
 
To any potential new CIO, I would say that successfully implementing and institutionalizing some major improvements in how the government does business is a ticket to making a major mark, particularly given the poor track record of politicals in slogging through execution as opposed to the klieg lights and media stories attached to new announcements. If you persist and succeed in some important and valuable old initiatives, you will be a hero to the IT community and to all friends of improved public management.
 
I hope the White House personnel folks will be asking this question of all the potential candidates.

Posted on Jun 20, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Tue, Jun 28, 2011

Most political appointee reforms ("initiatives") take the form of new procedures. Consider "TechStat." Here is how CIO.gov describes it: 'A TechStat is a face-to-face, evidence-based review of an IT investment. A TechStat is triggered when an agency determines that a project is underperforming, using data from the IT Dashboard and other sources. In the session, the agency CIO and other members of an agency’s leadership team meet for one focused hour. They review a briefing that highlights the management of the investment, examines program performance data, and explores opportunities for corrective action. TechStat sessions conclude with clear next steps formalized in a memo and tracked to completion." to Anyone who thinks that a one hour meeting among member of a "leadership team" will produce "clear next steps" that will improve an "underperforming" program is living in the fantasy world of people with ne personal experience running such programs. The real keys to better government are (1) to drastically reduce the number of political appointees and (2) to focus on the development of human resource competence.

Thu, Jun 23, 2011

This is my first time commenting on line-- I just could not resist echoing Steve Kelman's opinions, because I really appreciated Steve's long tenure in the Federal government, providing clear direction. Kundra may be a sign of the times, short tenures, no tenaciousness to get the job done. I for one am pleased that he is gone; he came in under a cloud (lack of proper oversight at DC government) and he was not inspirational to the IT community- lack of attention.

Wed, Jun 22, 2011 Gorgonzola

He really has very, very little to show. He had help in showing little, as OMB is brimming with people who have been there and simply recycle ideas and programs that were thought of or even tried up to 20 years ago. And there is no accountability for showing little in this administration, and taking a long time to show little. Wow, just think: consolidating data centers. (In this case, VK really set the pace for success by allowing even a lone server in a closet to count as a DC.) Whichever companies he talks with should zero in on how original he was and what he actually completed. Some of these firms might conclude that he won't "sell" all that well to government. I wish him well in any case; he will land on his feet. My pick to replace him: Roger Baker. If the administration has any cojones at all, it would let him loose scrubbing the many failing IT projects all over government, and, aborting those poised to fail. The stress should be on management, in my view, even though program and contract management seem to be a limp priority when you consider how little management attention is given (beyond words) and how little is expected.

Wed, Jun 22, 2011

Um, excuse me, did the wind just shift direction again?

Tue, Jun 21, 2011

It's just another person feathering their own nest and not having to live with the consequences of their actions. Great work if you can get it.

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