Progress on stovepipes?

The Bush administration is in danger of losing momentum on the toughest management problem in government: Cutting across stovepipes.

Late last month, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) held hearings on the Volcker Commission's report, which found that agencies with similar responsibilities have been scattered throughout the federal government. The report recommended reorganizing agencies into a limited number of mission-related departments.

The commission missed the boat by advocating reorganization. We simply don't have time to build consensus for the wholesale dismantling of iron triangles — the combinations of constituent groups, Congressional committees and agency staffs that guard the status quo. And even if we did, the experience of the Homeland Security Department merger is surely a sobering reminder of what the aftermath would look like.

Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management, testified at the hearing that progress is being made even without reorganizing. Johnson has stressed the progress agencies have made using the President's Management Agenda.

The results are broadly positive, the agenda, particularly the e-government component, is making a difference.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the least amount of progress has ocurred in cutting across agency stovepipes. The survey shows that agency staffs are already stretched thin to comply with OMB's business case requirements. The staffs are unable to connect effectively with other agencies in the same line of business.

One glimmer of hope has been the federal enterprise architecture, which provides a tool to identify areas of duplication.

OMB officials are using the tool to review the fiscal 2005 budget for information technology investments, ferreting out overlaps and driving system consolidation.

The architecture is seen through the lens of technology. Given what it can reveal about how government is organized, this is a case of the support tail wagging the mission dog. The reasons for this nearsightedness are familiar to chief information officers everywhere.

Technology is a catalyst for change, but the CIO as a change agent is not exactly welcome in program offices. The fight against this resistance is weakened by the general inability of technologists to speak in programmatic terms.

Historically, most presidential management initiatives fail to spread to the subagencies that control programs. The fight gets harder, not easier. This time will be different only with continued top-level commitment to change, including at OMB.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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