OMB's daring plan

The Office of Management and Budget has made one of its boldest management proposals yet with a strategy that promotes the use of what's known as component-based architecture.

This concept, which certainly looks good on paper, entails developing systems in modules that can be reused in other systems, reducing the overall cost and effort required to build applications. OMB believes such an approach could facilitate the federal government's development and fielding of e-government applications.

For example, instead of a dozen agencies developing technology for accepting electronic payments, why not have one agency take the lead on the e-payment module and share it with the rest?

The concept fits well with OMB's vision of managing information technology with a governmentwide perspective, capitalizing on reduced costs and better cross-agency collaboration.

Yet it's also a daring venture. The idea of component-based architecture, or software reuse, has been around for years, tantalizing program managers with its promises. But IT experts say that it's a bear to carry out, even within a given program or organization. To take it governmentwide is exponentially more difficult.

The concept is technically feasible, but culturally mind-boggling. How will agencies agree on the necessary features and functionality of individual components and the interfaces required to make them portable from one agency to the next? To negotiate these fine points — when agencies have such disparate missions, management strategies and IT competencies — is a tall order.

That's not to say the effort is not admirable or that OMB shouldn't make a go of it. It takes bold moves to bring about big change, and agencies will, no doubt, learn something from the effort.

But OMB should view its strategy with a jaundiced eye. The component-based architecture could prove unviable, with agencies unwilling or unable to find enough common ground to make it worthwhile. If that happens, OMB should quickly recast its effort to find the formula that may make the effort a success, however the Bush administration defines that. It also means officials should be willing, if necessary, to call it quits.

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