Business case schooling

The Office of Management and Budget made a small but symbolically significant point last month when officials publicly criticized the contract award for a high-profile screening system because it was on the agency's "at-risk" list of information technology projects. It's a lesson worth learning.

The Transportation Security Administration, according to OMB, failed to do enough upfront planning before awarding the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. CAPPS II is intended to search public databases for information that indicates whether an airline passenger poses a security risk.

It's easy to see OMB as just one of several groups targeting this politically controversial program. Agency officials, however, have a slightly different agenda.

For two years now, the Bush administration has been trying to foster business savvy among agencies by forcing them to present business cases for their programs. But many agency officials, in the hunt for funds for programs already under way, have spent most of their time retrofitting business cases to their existing strategies.

To be truly effective, business case studies should be done upfront, which is the point OMB officials are making with CAPPS II. Problems with IT plans often become apparent only when projects slip off schedule or run over budget.

Late last month, at a seminar sponsored by Federal Sources Inc., several IT consultants said federal program managers ought to work with vendors to gain some business savvy. That may be good advice for now, but OMB officials should also think seriously about the long-term prospects for their agenda.

It's a case of performance management. If they are looking for certain results, they ought to make sure that federal agencies know how to deliver them. Rather than leaving agencies to seek out schooling on their own, OMB ought to take the initiative and institute a training program for federal IT managers.

If not, in another two years, they are likely to find themselves teaching the same lessons again.

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