Agencies seek business case help

Agencies that need help developing business cases are turning to consultants to incorporate private sector practices into government planning.

The Bush administration made business cases — analyses of investment returns when requesting funds — part of the budget process three years ago, but agency officials still don't have the hang of it, said Chip Mather, senior vice president at Acquisition Solutions Inc.

"You're supposed to be making funding decisions based on getting the biggest bang for the buck," Mather said. "You're supposed to put together a business case that says if you give me this much money, this is what I will achieve." Agencies are all over the ballpark, he said.

His firm offers help with business cases, formally known as Exhibit 300 of a budget request, but only as part of broader services dealing with the entire acquisition process. He said agencies struggle with the principle that obtaining funding is part of the acquisition process, not a precursor to it.

The Homeland Security Department recently hired Robbins-Gioia LLC to help it build a business case for its ongoing modernization of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection's operations.

Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs and Border Protection Modernization Office, said developing a strong business case helps obtain funding and build internal support for programs.

Robbins-Gioia helped Armstrong's department quantify the modernization project's benefits, which was hard because part of the investment returns, such as port security, is intangible.

The project combines the existing International Trade Data System with a new system, Automated Commercial Environment, with the goal of securing cargo processing into and out of the United States. The systems also manage the collection of about $22 billion in duties a year.

Customs is rolling out the project's first phase now, he said. Called the Account Portal, the system allows importers, exporters, transportation firms and others in the field to look up the status of their shipments online.

Customs is developing its business case in stages, starting at a high level and drilling down for specific projects, Armstrong said.

Building the case becomes easier as it becomes more detailed, he added. "After the first iteration of detail, it becomes easier because you have processes in place," he said. "As you move through the various phases of development, it becomes a matter of aligning the desired business results with the functionality."

Robbins-Gioia launched the practice in May as clients increasingly asked for help, said Patricia Davis-Muffett, vice president of marketing.

"It used to be that people would go through the paper exercise," she said. But now the requirements have become more robust and the Office of Management and Budget is paying more attention to them.

Robbins-Gioia teaches agencies to capture information during program management that will become part of subsequent business cases. "They'll be able to consistently build business cases that will pass the OMB process, and they won't have to remove themselves from their jobs for two months to do it," Davis-Muffett said.

Another new offering is a software and services package called the Fujitsu and ProSight Playbook for OMB Business Cases, from Fujitsu Consulting and software developer ProSight Inc.

Playbook addresses the changes in methods that agencies must use to develop business cases, company officials said. Agencies must deal with elements that they historically didn't have to consider, such as a project's strategic alignment to the agency's mission goals, adherence to the agency's enterprise architecture and a financial analysis.

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Business case 101

The Office of Management and Budget is taking business cases far more seriously than ever before. During its fiscal 2003 budget review, the agency listed 771 proposed information technology projects, representing about $21 billion in funding, as "at risk," forbidding them to proceed. Mark Forman, OMB's associate director for e-government and information technology, will not lift the freeze until the agencies present successful business cases.

"President Bush is really making management one of his top priorities," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. Forman's use of funds as a method to persuade agencies to comply is a tool OMB has rarely used before, Miller said.

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