GSA blazes new trail

The General Services Administration and the CIO Council last week sketched out a plan to replace the Trail Boss training program with a program specifically designed to equip executives with the financial, technical and political skills required to manage projects in the new environment created by procurement reform.

"The need that exists now is much broader [than before] and crosses a spectrum of issues," said Emory Miller, director of information technology professional development at GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy.

Instead of focusing on contracting and delegations, today's manager must worry about capital planning, return on investment, architectures and performance measures, Miller said. And as the functions of the information technology, financial and administrative organizations within an agency merge, program managers must become strategic thinkers, leaders and innovators who understand the technology market and the management practices and politics that affect their agencies, he said. Agencies have begun to realize that they must change how they prepare their executives for this new environment.

In the old world of large, complex "grand design" projects, the person responsible for bringing the job in on time was the trail boss. Selection for the Trail Boss program, which was begun by GSA in 1988, is competitive, and the training is intense. Many federal chief technology officers and senior IT executives have been through the training, which concentrates on contracting, implementation and project management skills.

However, grand-design projects have given way to smaller-scope jobs that use commercial off-the-shelf technology or are outsourced to private industry.

"Information technology and agency business are one and the same today," Miller said. "IT is integral to the strategic business planning and mission of the agency."

Working with the CIO Council's Education and Training Committee, Miller described ideas for what is being calling the Strategic and Tactical Advocates for Results program. Miller emphasized that STAR will build on GSA's Trail Boss program, including the people who have been trained in the program as well as the organization - the Trail Boss Management Council.

Reaction from trail bosses at this year's annual gathering, GSA's Roundup '99, was tentative but generally positive. "I think the ideas and goals are good," said Ted Harris, a member of the first Trail Boss class and head of the IT support and acquisition branch at the Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park, N.C. "But I want to go back and talk to our folks about their needs."

The structure of the STAR program still is in its conceptual phase, Miller said. But the basic premise is a core program/project management course of two to three weeks offered through GSA, with specialized content provided by private-sector experts.

Three shorter courses on the latest technology advances, management practices and the political climate are planned to follow. Candidates for presenting the technology update include Gartner Group, Meta Group and Aberdeen Group. Miller and his group mentioned such organizations as the Center for Creative Leadership and Georgetown University as examples of other possible providers of the short courses.

The STAR program has received positive feedback in the initial talks with agency CIOs and other administrators, Miller said. G. Edward DeSeve, former deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and now a national industry director at KPMG LLP, agreed that it is an important step for GSA and the CIO Council to provide this service in conjunction with industry and academia.

"I think it's a great idea," DeSeve said. "I think it will be tremendously helpful to federal managers."

-- Anne A. Armstrong contributed to this article.

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