GAO offers draft language for IT management guide

Before agencies can measure how well their information systems perform they should know what their goals are for the programs these systems support and be able to manage their internal information technology operations well according to a draft IT management guide that the General Accounting Office circulated last week.

The guide "Measuring Performance and Demonstrating Results of Information Technology Investments " catalogs these and other "best practices" of 11 private companies and government agencies that are successfully measuring what and how IT contributes to their missions. It is aimed at federal middle managers who have been struggling with how to demonstrate the value of agency systems - a goal at the heart of the Government Performance and Results Act which requires agencies to report this week on specific mission goals and how IT supports them.

Paul Brubaker vice president for federal information services with Litton/PRC Inc. said agencies need details on how to put performance measurements in place. "Without seeing specific examples of how this stuff is applied it's hard to keep focus on what you're doing " said Brubaker who as a Senate aide developed the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act requiring IT performance measures.

In other work GAO has concluded that agencies are still defining their overall program goals. But federal IT managers do not have to wait for this work to be completed to start measuring how well they are doing said David McClure senior assistant director with GAO's Information Resources Management Policies and Issues Group. Managers can start by measuring their success with more traditional goals such as helping customers delivering projects on time and maintaining technology standards.

"Strategic business goals might not be firmly defined " McClure said. But he added that managers told GAO that "there were other things they could focus on. When it came time to demonstrate the links [to their missions] they would be able to demonstrate what their own performance was."

The guide reports that there is no single best way to measure IT performance but successful organizations apply several common practices including:

* Defining a "results chain" that lays out goals the steps that will be taken to meet those and the "evidence" of progress.

* Developing a measurement approach that includes different performance areas such as return on investment and user satisfaction to illustrate what a system contributes.

* Building good data-collection systems and tailoring performance reports to different levels of management such as reporting mission-related results to top executives and project-oriented information to contract managers.

For example GAO reported that the Immigration and Naturalization Service measures performance on its Information Technology Partnership contract held by Electronic Data Systems Corp. by assessing EDS' adherence to budgets and schedules technical performance of the systems produced and satisfaction of agency customers.

"It's just common sense " said Robert Greeves a consultant who has been studying performance measurement on the state and local levels after the contents of the guide were described to him. But Greeves said agency employees especially nontechnical managers need more training in how to run IT projects not just how to measure them.

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