Feds learn value of continuing ed

In sharp contrast to the rapid expansion of information technology in the federal government during the past 15 years, ideas about how to manage the IT systems and workforce emerged gradually.

It's not that federal agencies gave no thought to management. Indeed, the Trail Boss program, a training program for senior IT managers, began in the late 1980s. But it was still several more years before most agency officials seriously began thinking about workforce, training and related issues.

That thinking, like the Trail Boss program, is still evolving. IT management has proven to be a case of continuing education, with federal managers learning to think about old problems in new ways and to address new problems as technology and its applications change.

The difference between now and 1990 is dramatic. Esoteric laws and operations have given way to streamlined buying and business acumen. Business cases, performance management and enterprise architecture have become part of the vernacular.

The role of the IT professional has changed just as dramatically. Now senior IT executives play an influential role in agencies' missions. The information resource manager has become the chief information officer, bringing a mix of business and technical know-how to the table.

Lesson: Leadership matters

Although not the first initiative aimed at improving government IT management, the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 has had arguably the biggest impact on how IT is managed today. Clinger-Cohen put the onus squarely on the shoulders of the CIO, a new position that underscored the significant role IT plays at agencies.

The act introduced commercial-like discipline, including a requirement that agencies draft enterprise architecture plans to better buy and manage IT. It also changed how techies and nontechies viewed IT. Technology could help support an agency's transformation, and CIOs were expected to help make it happen.

"Look at what agencies are doing relative to capital planning and investment control, linking budget to performance," said Paul Brubaker, one of the authors of Clinger-Cohen. "More importantly, look at the language folks are using. Who would have thought that 'enterprise architecture' would [become] the words of the day?"

The law was reinforced by Raines' Rules, a memo written by former Office of Management and Budget Director Franklin Raines to IT managers mandating that agencies' fiscal 1998 budget requests for systems meet eight specific criteria or the agencies would lose funding.

These initiatives reflected the changing attitude toward IT. Clinger-Cohen moved technology issues "from the computer room to the boardroom," said Tony Valletta, a senior vice president at SRA International Inc. and a former Pentagon official. "Clinger-Cohen gave the CIOs and IT people a chance to prove that IT is an enabler — something that adds value to the existing functions and makes them more efficient."

But management issues became the focus with the emergence of a governmentwide CIO Council.

The council gave senior IT executives a forum to exchange ideas and lessons learned. It also now serves in an advisory role to OMB on matters of IT.

However, its powers to effect change are somewhat limited, many

observers say. "It can't truly be a management mechanism because it is a community of peers, and no one is empowered to tell anyone else what to do," said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International LLC and a former OMB official.

Indeed, some experts pushed for this to change. "One of the things I argued for was more authority for the CIO Council," said Roger Baker, former CIO at the Commerce Department and now a vice president at General Dynamics Network Systems. The council needs to have the authority to compel agencies to conduct better IT practices, he said.

However, the CIO Council has never had that authority. What agencies did get was a de facto federal CIO, officially called the administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology at OMB.

This position, held first by Mark Forman and now Karen Evans, "has brought a lot more visibility to the federal IT workforce," Baker said. "I think government is a somewhat friendlier place for technology people than it used to be. No longer are people kept in the back office and let out only when necessary. Senior IT folks are viewed as more businesslike than tech geeks these days."

Lesson: Think career, not job

Clinger-Cohen created a management structure for IT and along with it a new and still evolving career path for IT professionals. Compared to years ago, understanding the nuts and bolts of procurement regulations is a small part of the IT worker's job.

The scope of the job requires a different set of skills, said Fred Thompson, a former Treasury Department official and now a director at Unisys Corp. Fifteen years ago, when procurement was centralized within the General Services Administration and streamlined acquisition had not yet arrived, the act of buying a computer was one of the most difficult things to do in IT, he said.

Managing the buying process has taken a back seat to developing a business case for buying IT. Also, cross-agency initiatives are more common, and federal employees increasingly find themselves sharing project responsibilities with vendors.

Clinger-Cohen helped raise the profile and expectations of IT and its workforce, Thompson said, and as a result, hiring skilled IT workers became paramount. He said agency officials began to ask: Do we really have the right workforce in place to handle major programs?

Fortunately, agencies are doing a better job of managing their workforce, said Ira Hobbs, deputy CIO at the Agriculture Department. Today, as in 2001 when Hobbs helped produce a National Academy of Public Administration workforce study, agencies still think "about how to better align the workforce, its policies and its issues to recruit for the IT workers of the future," he said.

Although the same issues — such as pay, compensation, recruitment, staffing and definitions of job competencies for IT workers — still dominate the agenda eight years after Clinger-Cohen was passed, officials are making progress on all fronts. Techies have their own job family with better job descriptions, some receive special pay rates, pay-for-performance is catching on, and new rules make it easier to fill critical job vacancies.

"Look at how the Department of Homeland Security is being created," Hobbs said. "Look at the Department of Defense."

Both organizations sought permission to change the way they hire, pay and manage workers. DOD officials are in the process of creating a new personnel system to link pay to performance, speed hiring and abolish the General Schedule pay system. DHS officials are still evaluating their human resources approach.

The world was a different place at the time Clinger-Cohen was written, Brubaker said. "People were beginning to understand the power of the Information Age," he said. "The CIO was a catalyst to make sure those equities were understood. I think that case has been made. That level of understanding has been significantly increased."

Still, there is room for improvement, he said. Agencies still conduct too many mega procurements and don't focus enough on contract execution. But, in general, Brubaker said, the CIO position has "been tremendously successful."

Lesson: Think in terms of results

Although the act's impact was felt almost immediately, an older law is gaining a new lease on life as agency officials learn how to better evaluate their programs' performance. That law, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993, requires agencies to tie budgets to results.

A big driver in the law's resuscitation has been OMB's use of its Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), which asks a series of questions to help agencies rate program performance.

GPRA is starting to take hold because the PART initiative is starting to focus budgetary decisions on performance and budget metrics, McConnell said. OMB "has embraced it and included it in the budget planning process," he said. "That's making it real."

John Mercer, a former Senate staffer and one of the authors of GPRA, agrees. "PART is underscoring the notion that program effectiveness will be measured by program results, and what you do to achieve those results is very important in OMB's assessment of the program and agency," he said.

Until recently, OMB officials "didn't do much with GPRA plans in a formal way," but PART changes that, he said.

Despite its somewhat slow start, the act still provided a strong basis for the management initiatives that followed, Mercer said. Agencies need "other things in addition to GPRA," he said, "but GPRA really laid the foundation, and it's a statutory foundation."

Clinger-Cohen was inspired in part by concerns that CIO offices were buying technology that was not related to the mission of the agency, Mercer said. One of the requirements of that law and of OMB Circular A-130 is that agencies must justify their system investments.

Lesson: Get top-level buy-in

Some of the early thinking about management came about because of what's known in the private sector as executive-level buy-in — in the federal government's case, that would be the White House.

As GPRA was percolating in Congress, the Clinton administration was crafting the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR). Part of the NPR agenda, said Morley Winograd, the group's former director, was to make government

performance-based and results-oriented. "The goal of all this was how to make government work better and cost less," he said.

NPR helped put government on the Internet, Mercer said, by spearheading programs such as Access America in 1997 and the FirstGov Web portal in 2000. "It created a culture in government agencies of thinking about the Web as mainstream information to the public," he said. "Once [government] had a portal, [agencies] could see that consolidation and efficiencies could be achieved."

NPR also gave birth to the Government Information Technology Services Board, whose goal is to facilitate e-government programs, such as building interagency databases. It helped fund innovative projects that had governmentwide impacts. The CIO Council adopted some of those projects.

The Bush administration has built on these early management reforms with the President's Management Agenda. The agenda, which debuted in August 2001, highlights five governmentwide management reforms that the administration considers a priority: workforce, competitive sourcing, improved financial management, expanded e-government, and budget and performance integration.

The initiatives are designed to move toward a results-oriented government as envisioned in GPRA, Mercer said. "The biggest and broadest is budget and performance integration," he said. The other four reforms "wouldn't be significant or effective unless budget and performance integration happens effectively."

Many factors influenced how IT is managed today, including the Chief Financial Officer's Act, which established a top management official within the upper ranks of an agency for the first time, McConnell said.

It takes time for initiatives to come together, McConnell said. "It shows that change requires a lot of different aspects to happen and that it's not a partisan issue, that management is generally not something that Republicans and Democrats disagree about," he said.

O'Hara is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.


  • Government Innovation Awards
    Government Innovation Awards - https://governmentinnovationawards.com

    Congratulations to the 2021 Rising Stars

    These early-career leaders already are having an outsized impact on government IT.

  • Acquisition
    Shutterstock ID 169474442 By Maxx-Studio

    The growing importance of GWACs

    One of the government's most popular methods for buying emerging technologies and critical IT services faces significant challenges in an ever-changing marketplace

Stay Connected