Making a case

Circular A-11 Capital Asset Plan and Business Case guide

Knowing how to write a decent business case to justify an information technology program is no longer an advantage for agencies, it's a necessity.

The Office of Management and Budget requires that business cases accompany agency budget requests. And because of changes in capital planning guidelines, the number of business cases agencies must develop has almost tripled.

Few agencies, however, have a formal process for turning out those critical documents. But in what may be an example for other agencies to follow, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency are issuing an interactive guide that will help IT and business executives put together complete business cases for their information systems, starting with the fiscal 2005 budget development process.

Having a "logical, uncomplicated and timely" process to develop business cases is critical now that OMB has expanded the requirements for agencies to receive good scores on their business cases, said Debra Stouffer, chief technology officer at the EPA. The focus on e-government, enterprise architecture and collaborative services requires more planning and management than most agencies are used to, she said.

"I think you will see all agencies trying to do a better job," said Kim Nelson, the EPA's chief information officer. "The bar is higher."

With the emphasis on cross-agency projects, a key piece of the new process is getting the most out of OMB's new governmentwide tools, Stouffer said. The tools include the Federal Enterprise Architecture and the architecture reference models that help break down the catalog of all federal systems by business, technology, service and other areas.

The Federal Enterprise Architecture is still being developed. And EPA officials expect the agency's enterprise architecture to be in place by the end of the year. But once both are available, "we think it will make it much easier for users to better articulate their business cases," Nelson said. "We want to develop a process that's not bureaucratic, [that] stages users for success."

The EPA guide starts with the integrated project team idea and leads agency officials from creating an abstract concept for the project to picking the people with the right skills to be on the management team (see box).

"What we're trying to do is manage the agency so we can be as high- performing as possible," Nelson said. "We want to more strategically align those investments with the administration's goals, the agency's strategic plan and within our own organization to move forward as quickly as possible."

The system enables officials to literally build the business case by working on previous answers, making it easier to fill in information because it was gathered to answer previous requirements, Stouffer said at a Digital Government Institute conference. And by using the same process for every project, officials will know exactly what they need to do to get their projects through internal checks, making it more likely that OMB will approve their requests, she said.

Last year, OMB revised its Circular A-11, which outlines required information for agency investments, including IT projects. The changes expand the business case requirements to favor collaborative projects and to require agencies to form integrated project teams made up of IT and business officials to work on the business cases, said Bill McVay, senior policy analyst at OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), speaking at the conference.

The revisions also change the definition of a major system, so now more e-government and IT modernization initiatives must submit business cases, he said.

Because of the changes, many agencies have seen the number of business cases explode. Last year, the Energy Department submitted 14 business cases. This year, officials submitted more than 100, Karen Evans, the department's CIO, said at a breakfast hosted by the Bethesda, Md., chapter of AFCEA International.

OMB officials are just now beginning to go through the fiscal 2004 requests under the revised A-11, so there is no way to tell yet how agencies did with the new process, McVay said. But in the fiscal 2003 budget, which used the old A-11 requirements, only eight out of more than 1,300 IT business cases received a perfect score, he said.

OMB wouldn't disclose what projects those eight business cases reflected, but their emphasis on collaboration helped bump the business cases from being "okay" to being "great," McVay said.

The 24 e-government initiatives overseen by OMB are the cross-agency projects that get the most attention, but there are many other opportunities for collaboration, he said.

Finding such opportunities is yet another reason that using the Federal Enterprise Architecture is so important, Nelson said.

"Agencies have to start looking at their enterprise differently, at the federal government as [an] enterprise," she said. "My expectation is that CIOs and others at this level of government have to force that to happen."

Just because a business case is collaborative doesn't mean that it is good, but business cases that start out with collaboration in mind are much more likely to be thorough justifications that OMB will approve, McVay said.

And just as OMB is requiring integrated project teams, the agency has formed an IT and e-government working group to review the huge number of business cases that are now coming in, McVay said.

Megan Lisagor contributed to this article.

***

Step by step

The Environmental Protection Agency's new business case preparation guide takes agency officials through a detailed process, with each step building on the information gathered for the ones before it. The process lasts from October to May, when the EPA selects the projects to be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for funding.

Here are some steps with an initial timeline:

October to November

* Create a project description or abstract.

* Develop high-level performance measures.

* Demonstrate how the project fits within the EPA's and OMB's enterprise architectures.

December

* Make an initial decision about whether to go forward with a project. December to January

* Develop a full project description.

* Evaluate and include necessary security and privacy measures.

* Analyze possible alternative solutions.

February to April

* Develop an acquisition strategy.

* Pick the integrated project management team.

* Identify a management plan to monitor performance.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

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