A study in change

The impending departure of Mitchell Daniels Jr. marks the first test, but not the last or most important, of the Bush administration's information technology management agenda.

Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget since January 2001, is credited with helping shape and champion that agenda, which is an ambitious effort to transform the government's approach to IT spending by linking the budget to various performance measures.

Daniels' unstinting support, observers say, has created the right conditions for the changes brought about, for the most part, by his IT point man, Mark Forman, and they can only wonder if the next director will give Forman the same backing. That's a fair question, but it misses the bigger issue.

The best leaders often make their marks by bringing about seemingly impossible changes through sheer force of will and personality. Yet the real test of their legacy comes with their departure, when we can see whether their vision has truly taken hold or whether it fades as their presence recedes.

It's analogous to the distinction scientists make between physical and chemical changes. A physical change might occur when you mix one fluid with another, such as oil and vinegar, altering the taste and appearance, but the change is only temporary, because the ingredients will naturally separate.

A chemical reaction, on the other hand, takes place when you mix vinegar with baking soda, which produces carbon dioxide gas. The change, made at the molecular level, cannot be easily undone.

More likely than not, Forman has earned enough respect throughout the executive branch to carry on this grand experiment in IT management after Daniels leaves OMB next month. But that begs the question of what happens when Forman leaves, which has occasionally been a subject of speculation.

That's the question the next OMB director needs to answer. If the Bush administration deems this management agenda a success, agency officials must find ways to translate the changes begun by Daniels and Forman into meaningful and lasting change.

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