IMC chair focuses on strategic concerns

As the government focuses more intensely on applying business principles to information technology programs, federal executives will need less in the way of technical knowledge and more of the analytical skills required for making smart investment decisions.

Frank Lalley, associate deputy assistant secretary for telecommunications at the Department of Veterans Affairs, fits the role of the new federal IT manager to a tee. Although he entered the world of telecommunications only three years ago, his long history of success in analytical and policy jobs made him an obvious choice to serve as the chairman of the Interagency Management Council (IMC), a group that has taken on the burden of tackling some of the government's toughest telecom procurement issues.

Although Lalley said he finds telecommunications technology "fascinating," he does not pretend to be a technical wizard. Instead, he focuses on the business aspects of meeting the VA's telecommunications demands.

"I think most telecommunications decisions are business decisions," he said. "You don't buy the technology unless it makes business sense. I have a great staff that keeps me informed of all the technology, and I have a great rapport with my colleagues at other agencies."

High technology apparently was not a priority for Lalley when he grew up in England. "It was the dream of every little boy then to be [a Royal Air Force] pilot," he recalled. "But I couldn't because I was an American. So I came here wanting to be a career pilot."

He soon changed his mind after attending summer camp as a youth at Dover Air Force Base in Maine shortly before the full-scale outbreak of the Vietnam War. At the time, pilots had extremely little to do, he said.

"They were bored to death, and there was no expectation that was going to change," Lalley said. "The job I saw at the time wasn't exciting."

Lalley did join the Air Force in 1965 as an operations research analyst after receiving a bachelor's degree in management engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y. After leaving the service, he spent a few weeks working in the private sector for Monsanto Co. but was enticed back into public service by some friends who urged him to accept a civilian job with the Army. While working there, he received a master's degree in business administration from Southern Illinois University.

He subsequently worked a series of jobs at the Federal Energy Administration, later the Energy Department. Lalley still considers this his "defining time," when his analytic skills were put to the test. It was the mid-70s, immediately after the country's oil crisis.

"The whole country was wrestling with new ways of analyzing the energy supply situation," he said. "I got caught up in that. Suddenly I turned around, and I'd been there 13 years. I couldn't believe it."

Because of his extensive analytical experience, Lalley was asked in 1987 to run the VA's Office of Information Management and Statistics. He gradually moved into the IT field after his promotion to deputy assistant secretary for information resources policy and oversight in 1990. He accepted his current job in 1994.

As a result of Lalley taking over the reins at the IMC this year, observers may see the group focus more on strategic concerns. Lalley pointed out that he had attended IMC meetings for years, often with his former boss Bob Woods, who left the VA to head the FTS 2000 program at the General Services Administration.

Lalley said he believes the group had been drifting away from its mission: to tackle policy-oriented challenges and not delve into the details of GSA's telecom operations. "My sense was that we [had] been too focused on operational issues," he said. "We put a lot of time into [planning] the FTS 2000 follow-on contracts to the point of almost doing GSA's work for it. We weren't doing a good job of strategic thinking because we were so deeply into the operational aspects."

He expressed enthusiasm over his gradual move into the fields of computers and telecommunications, although he said he still sometimes finds the technical aspects of his job difficult.

"It's like being rejuvenated," he said. "I'm still learning a lot of the telecom field, and it fascinates me. My life has sort of been a series of mini careers; I tend to spend 10-year blocks of time in each career. But the theme running through everything I've done has been decision analysis - using decision tools that are objective and require qualitative methods."

And what mini career will he take on after his stint with telecom? He does not know, but do not look for him to retire to a cushy private-sector job anytime soon.

"The government offers challenges to individuals that aren't available to the private sector," he said. "If you want to deal with real serious challenges, the government has them."

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