McConnell: Mission is the true driver

The big changes have come from events rather than new laws

Ten years ago, the Clinger-Cohen Act and companion legislation streamlined a burdensome, complex and punitive acquisition system. Now, the pendulum is swinging back to more controls and more challenges to agency authority. Information technology governance remains a work in progress.

But although Clinger-Cohen foreshadowed and supported the changes in today's IT world, such as the need for government and industry to share responsibility for mission performance, those changes came from events rather than any new legislation.

The IT community has been shaken by the dot-com meltdown, the Year 2000 date change and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Although those events are not comparable in scope, each underscored two common messages. The first is that mission, not technology, must drive change.

The dot-com crash proved that Internet technology couldn't solve the world's problems by itself. Business fundamentals, such as understanding the market, project management and cost control, were rehabilitated. The 2000 date change demonstrated that when an urgent and compelling mission arises, the IT community can get the funds necessary for delivering the goods on time.

In addition to its deeper effects on our nation, the 2001 attacks showed that mission-focused technology can break down barriers to information sharing and cooperation only when accompanied by adequate political and bureaucratic will.

Yes, mission, not technology, must be the driver. But the mechanisms for communicating mission needs to the IT community remain primitive. Both enterprise and service-oriented architectures can help, but only if they can be explained in terms of concrete business process improvements. The IT side has to work harder to get beyond its own jargon and hype.

This brings us to the second common message: Hype only hurts the cause. Many business owners feel burned by unmet promises and threats from the cyber world during the past decade. It is not hard to find senior executives who believe that the dot-com bust, Year 2000 glitch and post-Sept. 11 cyberterrorism warnings were simply efforts by the IT industry to cash in on adversity. As the saying goes, "Once burned, twice shy."

The industry is maturing in the depth and sophistication of its services, the security and reliability of its products, and its understanding of customers. Customers are also becoming much better at seeing the promise of technology and demanding value from it.

This collage of environment and governance creates an opportunity for the IT community. Whether provided directly by the private sector or in partnership with agency centers of excellence, what will succeed are clearly focused, well-articulated, cost-effective, mission-oriented services in which the service provider shares risks and rewards with the customer. Clinger-Cohen laid the groundwork that will enable this business model to develop and flourish.

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

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