Experiencing a breakthrough

When software designers talk about "breakthrough" technology, they mean a new application that pushes computing capability to a level few had imagined possible.

Mark Forman, associate director for information technology and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, also uses the term "breakthrough" a lot these days — and he also means pushing to a level never before imagined. But Forman is looking for a breakthrough from people as well as IT.

There are 2,900 "major and significant" IT projects under way in the federal government, Forman said during a presentation to the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils' recent Management of Change conference in New Orleans.

"Now it's time to move on to breakthrough performance," he said. "That's what it takes to really deliver on the promise of e-government."

E-government encompasses not only the use of digital technologies to transform government operations, but also a shift in management thinking that will help achieve what Forman called "an order-of-magnitude improvement in the federal government's value to the citizen — with decisions [made] in minutes or hours, not weeks or months."

That management shift is at the heart of breakthrough performance, which Forman defines as "a new level of performance [that is] not predictable based on past performance and [where] outcomes are concrete, measurable and important to those affected by the program or activity" in question.

To achieve breakthrough performance, managers must think of themselves and their workers as innovators who can change rapidly to address emerging needs, Forman said during his June 5 presentation. "We must move from our paper-based mind-set...to making simple, instantaneous decisions," he said.

He pointed, for example, to a page on the General Services Administration's Federal Consumer Information Center Web site concerning federal loans, grants and assistance. Instead of linking citizens directly to data on government programs, the site tells readers to look up the information in the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance — which can be bought from the Government Printing Office.

"That's got to change," Forman said. "There has to be a better way to let people know how to move through the government to solve their problems."

Breakthrough performance is relevant to the federal government as it begins to incorporate technology into every corner of interaction with citizens, said Robert Reeve, who focuses on e-government as a partner at PwC Consulting.

In order to achieve breakthrough performance, Reeve said, it's no longer enough for government officials to buy the newest application or system with all the latest technological bells and whistles. "This is also about getting employees motivated," he said. "Innovative new technology can be very scary."

The road to breakthrough performance also has its pitfalls. "There are a lot of battles to be fought to get to the point where [e-government] can really move forward," said Roger Baker, former chief information officer at the Commerce Department and now an executive vice president at CACI International Inc.

In the IT procurement community, for example, some contracting officers work with the vendor in writing contracts. But others only allow the vendor "to do exactly what they're told to do," Baker said. "You can't have breakthrough performance if you're only going to think inside the box like that."

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Breakthrough performance results

Mark Forman, the Office of Management and Budget's associate director for information technology and e-government, said innovative thinking on e-government will lead to "breakthrough performance" in the federal government. Forman said he already sees tangible results from this process.

For example:

* FirstGov, the federal government's Web portal, is in the process of "moving from a search engine to a service portal" with the addition of much broader search capabilities and the ability to quickly post time-sensitive information.

* A clear IT strategy drove the development of the proposed fiscal 2003 IT budget.

* The General Services Administration has established an Office of Citizen Services to consolidate its e-government functions, including FirstGov.

* Federal agencies are developing IT strategic modernization blueprints.

* Twelve to 15 e-government initiatives will be operative by the end of the summer.

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