Provide proper training

President Bush's proposed information technology budget for fiscal 2004 is a policy document that turns budget purse strings into thick leather reins intended to steer agencies toward more accountability and the use of business practices to defend IT spending. But if Bush administration officials expect government IT managers to act more like corporate executives, they must fund the proper training for them to learn those business skills.

Bush's $59.3 billion IT budget for fiscal 2004 released last week is a modest, if not meager, proposal in terms of actual spending — a 2 percent increase from fiscal 2003. Federal IT managers, maybe justifiably, will argue that they cannot carry out much of what they have been asked to do.

But the bigger story here is that the administration wants agencies to justify the billions of dollars they spend on IT by writing business cases that lay out how their systems support the results they want to reach. The problem is federal IT program managers have little or no experience in writing such plans. The result: More than seven out of 10 business cases submitted to the Office of Management and Budget were unacceptable.

What they need is guidance. Mark Forman, Bush's associate director of IT and e-government, and the IT staff at OMB understand this. Instead of criticizing federal IT managers for incompetence, they seem genuinely committed to giving program managers proper training.

But the effort requires investment of both money and time. And it will be a bigger job than most expect. Indeed, what's needed is a Marshall Plan, of sorts, for training IT managers.

The most effective — not to mention fair and supportive — management tack for the administration to take now is to create a well-funded program that shows federal IT managers that, although OMB officials may demand a much higher standard, they are willing to give managers what they need to succeed.

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