How to win at TMF

A board member explains how to prepare and present projects for the Technology Modernization Fund.

shutterstock image By enzozo; photo ID: 319763930
 

The board that evaluates agency requests for Technology Modernization Fund money has approved six agency projects since it was created, and it's looking to do more in the coming year.

The seven-member board, chaired by Federal CIO Suzette Kent, is still doling out the $100 million appropriated to support projects under the Modernizing Government Technology Act.

The two-part application process -- a short memo explaining the project followed by a formal presentation -- presents pitfall for agencies that can weaken their chances.

At a recent industry event, TMF board member Alan Thomas, who is also commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Acquisition Service, offered some "do and don't" advice for agencies looking to apply.

A solid, detailed contracting plan for a proposed project goes a long way, Thomas said. That gives the board a better handle on how an agency will spend the money. Applicants should also know the timeline involved with the procurement process. Getting contracting plans in place or in motion at the last minute can add considerable time to the project.

"Are you just adding funds to an existing contract? Are you doing something competitive? Are you looking to use small businesses?" Having a mature acquisition strategy has been key to all of the projects the board has approved, he said. "Know how you're going to spend the dollars" for acquisition before going to the board.

The board likes teams, Thomas said. Members are looking for applications that draw several agencies together to work on a common problem, he said. Having awarded funds to bigger agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy to modernize legacy systems, the board is seeking plans that "touch" multiple agencies' IT systems.

Don't "bury the lead" in applications documents, he said.  

"We'll get a three- or four-page project proposal about an idea," said Thomas. "Don't make us dig to the fourth page to find it. That should be in the opening paragraph."

Also don't spend much time on background, with boilerplate copy about agency mission. Limit the number of acronyms, especially if they're specific to a particular agency environment.

Sending the agency CIO to the board to plead the case for the application isn't always the best move, according to Thomas.

"We want the team that is actually going to do the work to come in and do the briefing," he said. "We're almost taking a bit of a venture capitalist spin on things. We want to know the people who we're giving money to. Don't send the top person at the agency to wow us. Who's the project manager? Who's the technical lead on the government side? Who is going to come in and execute on this?"

The board has members who are very good at the technical details as well as some who are experienced with program management, Thomas said. They will want specifics on contracting planning, as well as technical details that CIOs with their big-picture view of the project, might not be able to explain in depth.

Agencies that are successful and get an award shouldn't expect to get the money all at once, he said. The board doles out awards gradually, based on a set of milestones it sets for the project that are reviewed quarterly, he explained.  Since the money has to be repaid by the recipient agency, gradual funding infusions based on success lets agencies avoid making big costly mistakes. "The incremental approach, as opposed to the 'big bang' approach," he said, gives agencies better chances for "course correction, if needed."

Even if applicants are unsuccessful, Thomas said the process gets IT officials, as well as agency financial, contracting and management leadership, to think more critically about their IT investments.

In general, applications are looking better, he said. GSA has set up a program management office to oversee the TMF applications and help agencies hone them. "The quality has gone up pretty significantly," Thomas said.

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