Tough decisions

In July, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. seriously exercised the Clinger- Cohen Act by sending two memorandums to the federal agencies that will be affected by the proposed Homeland Security Department.

The memorandums directed agencies to cease information system development efforts that exceed half a million dollars and to appear before the Information Technology Investment Review Group led by OMB and the Office of Homeland Security. The group is composed of chief information and financial officers and other senior officials from the various agencies affected.

The reviews make sense for at least three reasons. First, there will be a large number of systems coming into the proposed Homeland Security Department. Every major incoming agency has its own personnel system, for example. It will be hard enough to integrate those systems as they are without attempting to modify incompatibilities.

Second, the exposure of each project to senior officials in other agencies creates a peer-review process that brings valuable outside perspectives. One is reminded of the cross-agency IT Acquisition Review Board created before enactment of the Clinger-Cohen Act, which was highly successful at improving projects in selected agencies.

Finally, the group creates an excellent environment for the management officials of the new department. Given the tremendous management challenges the new department will have, this is an important way to build trust and establish good ties among the incoming entities.

Although the group's deliberations are not made public, some things are known. The review process has not become a source of significant delay. Several major procurements have passed its scrutiny, such as the Transportation Security Administration's infrastructure buy and the Coast Guard's modernization of its maritime 911 system.

The peer nature of the group is a potential weakness, however. Just as a chief executive officer who sits on another company's executive compensation committee is reluctant to reduce the pay of his peer, so too will one's fellow CIOs avoid being too critical of one another's projects. This danger is mitigated somewhat by the existence of clear decision criteria and by the group's need to be relevant to the process.

Although clear criteria can make yes-or-no decisions easier, the problem is what to do to satisfy mission requirements when a proposal is weak.

Until an enterprise architecture for the new department is completed, "no" may be a reasonable short-term answer. But ultimately, the requirement must be met, and the management problem that caused the "no" must be rectified.

Given the importance of its mission, we must hope that the Homeland Security Department will draw the best from its incoming components and take advantage of those skills in industry.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www. mcconnellinternational.com).

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