Wagner: Lead with the mission

How to transcend the IT stuff and get to the point, which is enabling agency programs to succeed

Government information technology professionals and program managers hold frequent meetings to discuss how IT can best support particular government programs. Unfortunately, many of those meetings degenerate into silly arguments that obscure important issues. Therefore, it is useful to review some realities that we should not debate so we can address the critical issues that make the difference between failure and success.

Let’s begin with some technical realities. First, the most efficient solution will almost always be a shared solution for multiple organizations. Information systems serving specific organizations should be replaced. Many are poorly documented, are nonstandard, have inadequate security and are supported by employees who lack sufficient technical expertise. Today’s solutions must be developed using rigorous procedures and must provide large economies of scale. Think about how a service-oriented architecture might help you achieve economies of scale.

Second, if you don’t enforce standards, programs will fail. Too much IT customization leads to death — and that’s only if you’re lucky. Successful implementations enforce the use of standard technology and processes. Failure to standardize creates a mixture of expensive systems that don’t work together. I know one agency that took weeks to install security patches because it had too many systems managed by too many organizations.

So what are the most important issues? First, does the system support the right agency priorities? Mission drives IT, not the other way around. Technology projects fail when they are disconnected from agency priorities. Projects should be driven by the customer and must offer clear value to the agency’s mission. If we can’t quantify the value, we must be able to explain it. We sometimes lose sight of that. Think of how much emphasis we put on internal systems versus applications that support external constituents.

Second, an effective technical solution is effective only if we resolve organizational and governance issues. We did this long ago for telecommunications and e-mail. We are doing it for local-area networks, but we still have a long way to go before resolving those issues for applications that support government programs. We must ensure that shared systems meet customer needs. We can’t leave that to IT employees. They need a process to get customer feedback, resolve issues and be accountable. Customers and managers of interconnected systems also need to be accountable. Otherwise, we will deploy weak, consolidated solutions that force users to set up their own systems to overcome the limitations of shared systems.

Finally, developing and implementing new information systems is hard work. It takes expertise and management, and the federal government has a shortage of people with those skills. Make sure the implementers are skilled and have enough of them working together rather than scattered throughout the organization. Be certain the implementers have the resources they need, and be clear on accountability at the boundaries between their system and others connected to it.

In summary, the right technical answer is usually a shared, standard solution that supports the agency’s mission. Concentrate on the governance framework used to manage it and the capability of those deploying it.

Wagner recently retired as acting commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service after more than 30 years in government.

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