Presidential Technology Team deserves everyone's attention

The Office of Management and Budget is sponsoring a Presidential Technology Team (PTT), a group of information technology wizards in various federal agencies that can provide hands-on coaching to other agencies that are designing and acquiring major information systems.

We've seen this kind of thing before. In the mid-1980s, OMB sponsored something known as the Presidential Priority Systems program, which was a high-level review of mission-critical information systems such as the Securities and Exchange Commission's EDGAR, the Patent and Trademark Office's automation plan and FTS 2000. The brainchild of Joseph Wright, a man who occasionally had a good idea despite being much maligned by the bureaucratic rank and file, the PPS program aimed at focusing senior management attention on precedent-setting information systems. Wright, who eventually became Reagan's last OMB director, recognized that such information systems as the Decennial Census and Tax Systems Modernization were too important to leave to the IT gearheads. PPS stimulated review of these programs at the assistant secretary level and above and may even have made some valuable contributions to the programs.

PTT promises to go further than PPS by inserting into agencies the consultative know-how to bring off the design and acquisition of these vital systems. This is the sort of thing that agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration seem to need badly, if you can believe the newspaper reports on the state of the advanced airspace system.

Senior-level scrutiny of IT management issues devolved from the governmentwide to the agency level during the Bush administration. The Defense Department sponsored the Corporate Information Management enterprise, and similar initiatives arose in the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Clinton administration has been thoroughly technophoric, but the focus of attention has alighted on the information management side rather than on IT management. The vice president has been highly vocal in his support of public access to government information via the information superhighway. Far be it from me to denigrate how important it is to exploit the government's information storehouses for social and economic good, but IT management is vital too.

OMB's plan to put the best and brightest to work as roving IT management consultants is laudable. It anticipates the Cohen bill, those portions of the Defense Authorization Act that repeal the Brooks Act and place greater responsibility in OMB for IT management policy.

There are a few flies in this ointment, however. OMB's plan for PTT seems to assume that federal agencies have plenty of IT gurus, but they're just in the wrong places. I doubt it. If the agencies do not have the IT management expertise necessary to design and acquire mission-critical information systems, why should anyone think other agencies have a surplus of such talent available for lending advice through PTT? Or why would their home agencies let them go roving as PTT consultants when their skills are so precious?

And look at OMB. Congress is giving OMB great new mandates for governmentwide IT management, but is either Congress or the administration willing to give OMB the personnel slots for technology experts who can carry out those mandates? The betting here is that OMB will be chasing after its new responsibilities with the same personnel complement the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs now has. PTT may sound like a brave new venture, but it will probably ride on the backs of the same old horses.

What's best about PTT is that it demonstrates a serious concern for IT management at the senior management level. The PPS program of the 1980s struggled along with very slim support in terms of personnel devoted to it, but it could claim the personal interest and attention of OMB's (then) deputy director and the assistant secretaries for management in the agencies. The elevation of interest to the policy level multiplied the impact of slender staff resources. PPS remained vital so long as policy officials paid serious attention to IT management. When those officials moved on to other crises or new employment, PPS faded to a memory.

This is what I predict for PTT: It will make a difference so long as OMB and the senior agency officials remain interested and involved. PTT will falter when the government's diminutive attention span shifts to the new problem of the moment. For the time being, those who believe IT management issues are of paramount importance to effective government must stand up and cheer for PTT.

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Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net. This column can be read on FCW's home page at http://www.fcw.com.

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