Agencies grapple with Clinger-Cohen

As agencies began this month to prepare their budget submissions for fiscal 1999 they confronted for the first time the gap in knowledge about information technology and business management among IT professionals and nontechnical executives.

Federal agencies are preparing their first IT budgets according to the principles of the Clinger-Cohen Act which demands that they consider exactly how information systems will help them carry out their missions and the performance they can expect from these investments. The budget discussions are preparation for agencies' funding requests that are due to the Office of Management and Budget in the fall but the talks are making it clear that government managers still need to learn a common language.

"You should be able to walk into a room and start chatting about capital planning and not have a lot of blank faces " said Eliza McClenaghan chief information officer with the State Department referring to investment management techniques on which the law is based. "I think one of the hardest things [IT managers] are being asked to do is evaluate progress. The question that the `bigger-picture people' need to have answered is: Are they getting the support they need?"

McClenaghan heads a committee of the Federal Chief Information Officers Council that is working on ways to bring agencies up to speed. After issuing last winter a list of "core competencies" that technical and business managers must have to do their jobs the group now is working to develop a method for agencies to use to determine how much training it will take to teach the employees these new skills and to help agencies figure out how to pay for it.

The recommendations are due in December and aim to help agencies carry out a provision of Clinger-Cohen that requires they assess employees' IT management skills and have annual training plans.

It will not be easy. Although there are numerous tools and training programs designed to evaluate employees and teach them specific technical skills few sources exist for teaching IT professionals such "soft skills" as understanding how an agency runs or how to adapt to changes in business operations and technology said Judith Weller a senior analyst with Gartner Group which specializes in technology management.

"It really hasn't been until the distributed computing revolution that [information systems] people have needed to work in cross-functional teams" with business managers Weller said. "There hasn't been such an emphasis on the IS organization mirroring the parent organization's vision - working like a business within a business - [but] that is what IS organizations that are succeeding are doing."

"In reality training continues to be: What are the popular conferences to go to or what are the things that are really burning the organization right now " said John Keane associate director with DMR Group Inc. a Falls Church Va. consulting firm. Keane a consultant who lectures frequently about IT management said that federal managers are skeptical whether their agencies can even afford to maintain their skills.

Some training programs are cropping up in individual agencies but only the National Defense University has responded with a formal curriculum that will certify that managers have the skills the Clinger-Cohen Act demands McClenaghan said. The school has developed a CIO certificate program that includes courses in planning change management and performance measurement.

"We want to publicize these skills and both the public [sector] and private sector can determine how to implement them " she said.

Nontechnical managers already have many general management skills but are less likely to know a lot about technology. For them the main goal is to "remove the mystique" of IT and teach them that managing a technology project is not much different than managing any other project said Mark Day director of information resources management planning at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Having gone through the first round of the post-Clinger-Cohen Act budget decisions in the agency managers on both sides of the table "saw things they never saw before" about how their systems support the EPA's operations and how to manage them better Day said. The next challenge for the agency will be how to translate that into a training budget that will help executives improve their decision-making.

"I think we had to go through this first round to gain an assessment of what we knew and did not know " Day said.

The Office of Personnel Management does not keep statistics on how much money is spent on training federal employees an OPM spokesman said. Government officials and industry observers say funds for training are often the first to be cut as agencies attempt to trim their budgets despite studies showing that organizations that train their IT employees find it easier to retain them.

McClenaghan said one goal of the CIO Council is to create a baseline for how much money agencies are spending on training so they can measure how that money is spent over time. "I think we're going to find we don't spend the same amount of money as the private sector does on training " she said and agencies need to know if what they are spending gives them the return they need.

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