COMMENTARY

Why feds need to get better at studying IT best practices

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group.

The CIO Council has launched a best practices site to serve as an online learning and collaboration resource for IT management. It is part of the Obama administration’s initiative to strengthen program management, as outlined in the 25-point reform strategy announced in December 2010 by Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, and Federal CIO Vivek Kundra.

The council has tapped CIOs Michael Locatis (Energy Department), Chris Smith (Agriculture Department) and Teri Takai (Defense Department) to lead its new Management Best Practices Committee, which will maintain the site. Having once guided a similar best practices initiative for the council, I applaud this effort.

Kundra is on record as noting that the government does not have a sterling record in delivering quality IT solutions in a timely, cost-effective manner.

There are plenty of familiar examples of government IT programs suffering multimillion-dollar overruns, schedule slips measured in years and dismal mission-related results. In fact, only a few days before the site launched, Kundra testified during a Senate subcommittee hearing titled “Examining the President’s Plan for Eliminating Wasteful Spending in Information Technology.”

Senators and other witnesses cited a few familiar examples of programs that have gone off the tracks, including the electronic archives initiative at the National Archives and Records Administration, the handheld computer debacle in the 2010 census, and the Homeland Security Department’s SBInet border initiative. Such examples are all too common.

Now consider the effect of that accretion of obituaries of so-called runaway systems. What are the consequences of creating a false image of a federal landscape littered with the remains of failed IT initiatives? What impressions do we create?

Let’s make it a multiple-choice answer:

a) The American public and Congress get little in return for the more than $80 billion invested each year in IT in the federal government.
b) Most federal systems projects are rife with fraud, abuse, waste and mismanagement.
c) Most federal IT managers couldn’t run a roadside vegetable stand if you spotted them the vegetables and had the highway patrol flag down passing drivers.
d) All of the above.

Organizational expert Herbert Kaufman once wrote, “One must understand sickness and death to understand health; pathology contains many of the clues to normality.” He was arguing for the study of organizational terminations and eliminations as part of the public administration discipline.

But when it comes to the IT literature read by CIOs and program managers, just the opposite is needed. We excel at assembling autopsies. In looking at articles, publications and public testimony about federal IT, we have too few examples of projects delivered on time and within budget that also have the promised functionality. So instead, we have focused on our failures.

I once likened that approach to studying medicine by only doing autopsies. From that, we assemble guidance on what not to do, what problems and pitfalls to avoid. We have too few studies of healthy projects and successful systems implementations. We have too little guidance on what we should do and what has led to past successes.

CIOs ought to be documenting successful applications as an ongoing part of their responsibilities. I look forward to seeing the CIO Council’s best practices website expand and grow to meet that need.

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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