Safecom's critical point
Watchdogs on the Hill pay more attention to how agency leaders are approaching projects that require collaboration
Project Safecom has ridden the management merry-go-round, to say the least.
One of the Office of Management and Budget’s 25 high-profile e-government projects, Safecom has had four different management teams under three different agencies since it was launched in 2002. None of those teams had put together a management structure that would enhance collaboration among partners.
The result? Very little progress toward its objective of achieving communications interoperability among first responders at all levels of government, the General Accounting Office concluded in an April report.
The Homeland Security Department team now running Safecom is laying the groundwork for interoperability by setting up a management structure that emphasizes collaboration with stakeholders, GAO said.
Meanwhile, the House has complicated matters by voting to prohibit the Interior and Energy departments, and the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service, from spending discretionary funds on Safecom or on the Disaster Management, E-Rulemaking and E-Training initiatives. The House included the prohibition in its Interior appropriations bill; the Senate’s version of the bill hadn’t taken shape as of press time. One reason the committee gave for the cuts was that DHS had already requested money for the Safecom and Disaster Management projects.
Safecom’s saga may be atypical, but it serves to illustrate that a stable, sturdy management structure is critical to effective cross-agency collaboration.
“Strong leadership and stable management are especially critical to transformational programs such as the OMB-sponsored e-government initiatives,” the GAO report said.
“As in so many other cases we see, the challenges are in the management, rather than the technology per se or the technical issues,” said Linda Koontz, director of information management issues at GAO, Congress’ investigative arm.
“Project Safecom is a very stark and convincing example of what can happen when management is unstable,” she said. “It had four management teams in 18 months to two years, and what happened was predictable. Each team spent its time determining what the objectives of the project would be, and by the time they started to make a little progress, there would be a new management team.
“That’s not to say there weren’t reasons for making these management changes, but it certainly went against the actual progress,” she said.
Overall, OMB’s 25 Quicksilver initiatives—which are at the forefront of the cross-government efforts—have made mixed progress since they were launched in 2002, GAO said in a March report.
Setting out achievable objectives is crucial to cross-agency programs. Indeed, the degree to which the 25 initiatives met their original objectives was GAO’s measure of progress in its report.
“It’s not the only measure, but I think it’s indicative of what transpired over the last 18 to 24 months,” Koontz said. “It turns out to be critically important to lay out what you can achieve and have a plan to get there.”
“Some of the projects have had very important and lofty goals, but they hadn’t really defined what they could achieve within that kind of time period,” she said. “That’s part of the reason you didn’t see more progress.”
Grants.gov, managed by the Health and Human Services Department, is an example of success in laying out and meeting achievable objectives.
The initiative had the task of creating a single online portal for federal grant seekers to find, apply for and ultimately manage grants.
The program has met all of its original objectives, including deploying a simple, unified application mechanism, GAO said. As of February, the portal let prospective grants applicants find and apply for 835 grants at 29 agencies.
Grants.gov managers “achieved their objectives because they were very precise about what they were trying to achieve,” Koontz said. “That’s the mark of a good project.”
Consolidated Health Infomatics, another HHS project, was less on the mark. Managers found that the project’s original objective, building an application for processing and exchanging standardized electronic medical records, simply wasn’t feasible. They have since refocused their efforts on generating standards for health data and messaging in 24 clinical domains, building toward a future electronic application.
The lesson from CHI: Keep initial objectives achievable even if they are more modest.
Establishing achievable objectives shouldn’t be difficult, Koontz said.
“I think what we’re talking about here is really Project Management 101,” she said. “These initiatives are projects, and setting those achievable objectives and having measures is just a basic part of project management.”
Effective collaboration management and executive commitment and leadership also are vital ingredients in any cross-agency work.
It almost goes without saying that building a collaborative management structure starts at the top.
“Strong leadership is critical to the success of intergovernmental initiatives,” GAO said in a 2003 report on e-government collaboration.
“You have to have the strategic leadership in place that is committed to a particular outcome,” Navy CIO David Wennergren said. “It’s very hard sometimes for individual organizations to find their way to agreement. If the leadership isn’t committed to the transformation, then it’s too easy [for the project] to fall into disarray.”Quality counts
Leadership is part of it but the quality of leadership counts for a lot, said Mark Forman, executive vice president at Cassatt Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif.
“Knowledgeable leadership is a bigger part of it,” said Forman, former OMB administrator for e-government and IT. “People at the top have to have a clear understanding of how the people, the IT and the business processes play together to develop organizational effectiveness. If you’re not looking at IT through the lens of organizational effectiveness, it’s really hard to see how collaboration is useful or how e-government is going to move faster.”
Under the current governance structure, cross-government initiatives are assigned a managing partner, or lead agency, and a program manager.
Aggressive leadership from the managing partner is important, said David McClure, vice president for e-government at the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington.
“Putting a lead agency in charge and then having it collaborate with partnering agencies has worked better in some situations than others,” said McClure, former director for IT management issues at GAO.
He said, for example, the General Services Administration, managing partner on the USA Services initiative, has demonstrated strong leadership on its call center and customer relationship management efforts with partner agencies.
“There has to be aggressive, collaborative and focused leadership coming from the lead agency for an initiative to be successful,” he said.
In addition to strong leadership, involvement from leaders from participating agencies at all levels is vital for maintaining commitment and keeping a project on track, GAO said. OMB officials agree.
“It helps to focus partner agencies on commitment to the common goal,” said Tim Young, OMB’s internal efficiency and effectiveness portfolio manager for e-government. “If you can empower them to think from that perspective, you’ll get buy-in along the way.
“Some of the problems that we’ve had have occurred when agencies haven’t fully been vested in that process,” he said. “They haven’t been at the table to help make the decisions or to put their two cents in.”
GAO officials say another key factor is defining a comprehensive structure of the partner agencies’ roles and responsibilities.
Driving transformational change is another major management challenge, GAO’s Koontz said.
“We found that while agencies made good progress on some objectives, it was obviously much more difficult when they got to these transformational efforts,” she said. “It’s one thing to put up a Web site and have a portal where people can get certain kinds of information but it’s a different thing to re-engineer your backroom processes or to populate a single solution across the federal government.
“That was more challenging and more difficult to do within that initial two-year time frame,” she added.
At the Small Business Administration, officials see its Business Gateway project ultimately transforming the way businesses interact with government.
For example, a data harmonization initiative will eventually let members of the trucking and surface coal mining industries use a portal to fill out and file government forms.
“You press a button and all of the forms that you are required to fill out are automatically populated with the data you’ve already provided,” former SBA CIO Ron Miller said.
“This is actually where I think we get true transformation in government,” Miller told a panel on cross-agency collaboration in Washington recently. “It’s the kind of vision that not only alleviates the burden that government places on the business community, but it also transforms the way agencies handle information. They start thinking of information in a global sense rather than an isolated sense.”
Funding the initiatives is another hurdle for cross-agency collaboration. Collaborating agencies have to work around the current appropriations process, which critics say reinforces government stovepipes and inhibits cross-agency work.
“You wouldn’t think of it as stovepiped if you were sitting on one of the appropriations subcommittees because all you see are the policies you are responsible for,” Forman said. “What’s needed is a cross-jurisdiction integration subcommittee.”
Currently, agencies pass the hat among partners for funding. It’s a system that has worked, up to a point.
“We’ve seen [collaborating agencies] make it work,” Koontz said. “I wouldn’t say it’s perfect but it can be made workable.”
In implementing an effective funding strategy, the operative word is “strategy,” she said.
“We found that those [agencies] that had found a way of engaging the other agencies and getting funds committed were more successful,” she said.
For example, Grants.gov
and e-Rulemaking have developed a consensus with partner agencies on funding contributions based on agency-unique characteristics, such as the volume of business an agency expects to conduct under the initiative, GAO reported.
But at some point, officials will have to look at other methods of funding, observers said.
“Pass-the-hat isn’t such an impediment when you’re starting up, because like in any initial set of capital-venture arrangements, the costs are huge, the benefits are plausible and you don’t have enough experience to make a tough business case for it anyway,” said Jerry Mechling, lecturer in public policy and director of the E-Government Executive Education Project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
“But the problem we’re facing now is that we’re beyond the starting point,” he said.
“I’m not sure [pass-the-hat] is sufficient because it’s ad hoc,” McClure said. “I think what’s needed, particularly as these initiatives become institutionalized, is a more structured, defined and predictable way of funding them, without the guesswork.”
McClure and other observers suggested that alternative funding strategies will eventually have to be put on the table.
“There is going to have to be some discussion on fee-for-service or capital working fund approaches,” said McClure.