IT director challenges bureaucratic inertia

For Frank Reilly director of information systems methods and support at the General Accounting Office the federal government's frequent inability to design and develop information technology systems has the same root cause as the problems that afflicted the ancient Babylonians a subject Reilly spends much of his free time studying.

When discussing federal computer systems Reilly will slip into a discussion of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys which periodically would become choked with silt and contaminated by salt. Depending on the cycle "over 2 000 years society would grow and prosper and then collapse because they couldn't grow any food near the rivers " Reilly said. "They could see these things happening but they still repeated the same mistakes."

Government IT managers "are no different " Reilly said. "They know what the mistakes are but they keep making them. It's a cultural thing: People are resistant to change."

Reilly has spent most of his life developing IT systems for the private and public sectors. And for the last six years at GAO he has audited and studied these systems. Throughout his career he has seen very few projects that can be categorized as true successes. Resistance to change is one of the primary reasons for the across-the-board failure he said.

To break the chain of unsuccessful projects government IT managers need first to define system requirements Reilly said. And that means envisioning what the system should accomplish.

"But when you say requirements it doesn't mean just a vision " he said. "It means [defining] the specifics of how we're going to get there."

Reilly honed his philosophy of IT management early in the 1950s when he took his first government job at the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey. Faced with numerous offers after graduating from the University of California Los Angeles Reilly accepted the job with USGS after one of his professors told him: "Interior is at the bottom of the barrel. And you always want to go to the place that's in the worst condition because that's where you'll learn the most."

Reilly intent on technology and change became frustrated after a year with USGS' reluctance to embrace technology. He went to his supervisor Glenn Mowitt to quit. "I went to Mowitt and said `I want to tell you that this is the crappiest place I've ever worked in my life. Nobody wants to change things around here and I came here to change things. And if they don't want to change things I want to get the hell out of here ' " Reilly said. "He came from around his desk and he said `Frank you're the guy I've been looking for for the last 10 years. We are going to computerize this department.' "

Among other projects Reilly and Mowitt worked on automating the analog water gage systems that measured river levels automatically producing reports that typically took 10 years to be published. Now USGS uses satellites to post river levels on its Internet page.

"Mowitt had this enormous vision of how things could be " Reilly said. "And because of him Interior is way out in front of everybody in using technology."

In the 1960s Reilly left USGS to work on a master's degree in public administration at Harvard University. After graduating he returned to the federal government to be director of systems engineering for the Veterans Administration later he went to the U.S. Postal Service to automate the ZIP code system.

Reilly left government to work on numerous automation efforts in the private sector mostly for Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc. In between stints with consulting businesses Reilly took an unusual break to start up a nouvelle cuisine restaurant in Austin Texas.

But by the late 1980s he began to miss the challenge of large federal IT systems which every agency was installing. He returned to government this time with the GAO "because I really wanted to get back into the huge projects " he said.

Now after six years at GAO Reilly said he has "written only one report that said [an agency] developed a system successfully. And that was the Composite Health Care System " a DOD medical facility automation project. He also mentioned a Social Security Administration project that will support the agency's disability review process as another well-designed system.

But Reilly is quick to point out that he sees GAO's role as not solely that of a critic. He said he would like to push GAO into more of a proactive role in working with agencies before a system is developed.

But again recalling the Babylonians Reilly said he is not optimistic that government will change quickly.

"I don't think there's an agency in town that doesn't want to be successful " he said. "The question is do they have the skills the knowledge and the ability to do it? I think we need more people in government to do these things."

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