Defining breakthrough performance

In 2001, Bush administration officials introduced the idea of results-

oriented government in the President's Management Agenda. As agencies work to accomplish this goal, Office of Management and Budget officials have been developing the next goal: breakthrough performance. What is breakthrough performance? To define it and how agencies can achieve it, the Association for Federal Information Resources Management and Federal Computer Week recently brought together 10 top information technology executives at the City Club of Washington, D.C.

A portion of the discussion is outlined here.

What is breakthrough performance?

Breakthrough performance sounds like a clear concept, but its definition is not so easy to identify. There's a common core on which most people agree, but there are many flavors of understanding.

Gloria Parker, chief technology officer at the Department of Housing and Urban Development: Breakthrough performance means getting beyond standard performance and day-to- day operations to get to a point in which our outcomes are significantly better than past achievements.

For example, if you have struggled with financial management systems, breakthrough performance is reaching a point at which you're beyond worrying about

a clean audit, and you're bringing much better results that produce a significant bump in your



Jerry Williams, deputy chief information officer at the Small Business Administration: Breakthrough performance is the creation of a management framework that crosses organizational lines and allows folks to consider an agency's interrelationships. Often, we take a narrow view of things.

Sam Mok, chief financial officer at the Labor Department: Breakthrough performance, for some, is sustaining improvement during a long period of time. It's a dynamic process.

In the George H.W. Bush administration, we didn't have a consolidated financial statement for the federal government. We spent endless hours debating the best value. Now, many agencies have clean audit opinions, which is a breakthrough performance.

But given these dangerous times, particularly for IT professionals, better performance is not enough to rate as a breakthrough for some. The aim is to get ahead of the game.

Breaking through

After you decide what breakthrough performance means for your organization, how do you set about trying to achieve it? What goals are needed to move the process along? No single starting point exists, so it's first a matter of describing the basics.

Greg Parham, acting associate CIO for cybersecurity at the Agriculture Department: From a cybersecurity perspective, breakthrough performance is anticipatory performance. In other words, there are certain patterns that are discernible in daily operations, and I don't believe that we have developed the intelligence to understand what some of those signals tell us.

Breakthrough performance would actually have elements in which we would anticipate cybersecurity events and then apply appropriate controls or measures to capture them.

Steve Cooper, CIO at the Homeland Security Department: Moving from continuous improvement and process excellence to breakthrough performance implies that you have a baseline that measures pretty much everything in place. If we establish some baseline metrics and establish some type of baseline performance, it becomes relatively easy to know when you've moved from continuous solid performance and incremental improvement to breakthrough performance.

Glenn Perry, senior procurement executive at the Education Department chief acquisition officer and vice chairman of the Federal Acquisition Council: We can have performance measures, and we're all good at that. But at the end of the day, the sum of those parts can still leave you with an agency that's perceived as not particularly effective and not delivering high-quality services.

So you have to do something, and it has to happen at a high level. We do have to engage CFOs, CIOs, chief acquisition officers, program managers and senior program managers with an agency's secretary and the deputy secretary. They're the ones who have to make sure folks maintain perspective on daily operations. That's critical.

Changes in the law and other regulations might be needed to bolster this high-level involvement. The CFO Act of 1990, for example, makes the CFO the ultimate authority for financial systems. Without harmonizing that act with the intent of breakthrough performance, who makes what decision and when?

Facing challenges

Officials at information technology organizations will encounter several familiar hurdles in their attempts to achieve breakthrough performance. But first, getting people to break free from the inertia of daily processes will be essential.

Mok: When you talk about short-term goals, you can create many top-level councils, such as the CIO Council, and many titles, but that doesn't address the problem. All you get is more turf warfare.

There are tools that already exist that could be used to help agency officials set goals.

Parker: Short-term goals for all of us should resemble the goals of the President's Management Agenda. It looks at the important areas of government business and encourages us to work toward short-term improvement.

But for long-term goals, enterprise architecture covers everything if you properly set your baselines for it. Enterprise architecture can help us move toward breakthrough performance if we identify a correct enterprise architecture, understand our current models and efficiently implement each segment of the architectures.

Tamie Lyles-Santiago, acquisition manager for major information systems and weapons at the Defense Department: We have to encourage our people to always be in the spirit of thinking outside the box.

DOD is disciplined. If you want discipline, come to our organization. Our operations have been steeped in the religion of discipline. If you try to change, you would face serious resistance. We would need a long time to grasp innovation, especially if it threatens to move one of the mainstays.

If we could infuse creativity as a part of our business, our performance would move beyond ordinary toward exceptional.

Breaking the cycle of the way agencies are funded will also be essential.

Parker: We throw some new ideas out there and say we're going to do these innovative projects. But when it comes time to start peeling back the onion and cutting costs, those breakthrough, innovative ideas go away because we get down to what we have to do to keep the lights on.

And if, as many seem to think, enterprise architecture is a tool for producing breakthrough performance, there could still be a long way to go.

Perry: I think we're only beginning the conversations with the rest of the organization about how enterprise architecture applies to business throughout the agency.

Carlos Solari, CIO at the Executive Office of the President: We can agree it is definitely a work in progress. I don't know how you can achieve any success or breakthrough performance if you don't start with the fundamentals of enterprise architecture. You must have your business functions defined there, and you've got to start using it as an effective tool.

Naming names and enforcing accountability

Even if an organization gets everything else right, a program for breakthrough performance could depend on the official responsible for managing it. If agency officials assign the program at the wrong level and without the necessary authority to support it, the program could atrophy for lack of attention from the organization.

Randy Hite, director of IT architecture and systems at the General Accounting Office: In the absence of enterprise architecture, you're going to succeed through dumb luck or serendipity because I don't see how you can do it without it.

One option that's out there — and GAO officials have talked about it — is having a chief operating officer position. The official would sign a performance-based contract and come from an organization that has had success in building breakthrough performance. Agency officials would annually evaluate chief operating officers based on their ability to deliver performance change. The new official could provide an enterprisewide perspective to those kind of efforts.

Victoria Proctor, professional staff member at the House Government Reform Committee: It's important that it has to come from the secretary level. Certainly in Congress, when we look at different issues, such as government efficiencies and the elimination of some of these redundant systems and processes, we're holding the secretaries accountable.

Parker: In terms of marketing, you are absolutely right. The secretary needs to be marketing to Congress. The secretary needs to be the spokesperson for our needs. Then the secretary should justify the needs by projecting our result if we can do what we're saying we want to do.

Opening communications

When everyone has a good idea of what breakthrough performance means, IT goals and plans are in place and responsible individuals are identified, managers must still remember the rest of the organization.

Mok: How often do you IT types sit around with a CFO? Probably not often. I want to know how you think so I can try to better help you. Come talk to CFOs.

Parker: Within an agency, it has to be communicated through the strategic planning processes. Even more importantly, it's got to be in everybody's face every day. It should be on the Web sites. It should be on the intranet. They need to hear it from the secretary's mouth over and over again, but they also need to be hearing it from the mouths of their supervisors and managers.

Perry: We need to intensify the communication because this is a political year, and we talk a lot about this, in terms of the President's Management Agenda, as a political impetus. Either into a second Bush administration or a different one, there's going to be some change at the end of the calendar year in the higher management structure of the executive branch. This is something we need to maintain with them momentumwise so we can make progress next year.


  • Workforce
    White House rainbow light shutterstock ID : 1130423963 By zhephotography

    White House rolls out DEIA strategy

    On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued agencies a roadmap to guide their efforts to develop strategic plans for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), as required under a as required under a June executive order.

  • Defense
    software (whiteMocca/

    Why DOD is so bad at buying software

    The Defense Department wants to acquire emerging technology faster and more efficiently. But will its latest attempts to streamline its processes be enough?

Stay Connected