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In future assessments, OMB will ask agencies to tie enterprise architecture to performance improvements

Enterprise architecture has come a long way in the federal government — so far that the Office of Management and Budget’s top architecture official believes it’s time to start holding agencies to a higher standard.

The assessment framework that OMB has been using to evaluate agencies’ architecture office is based on basic achievements, said Kshmendra Paul, chief architect at OMB’s Office of E-government and Information Technology. Agencies score high simply by taking early steps toward developing an architecture and using it.

In the second quarter of fiscal 2008, 25 of the 27 agencies that OMB tracks had done enough to receive a green score, the highest level on the score card. So now OMB plans to start applying more exacting standards.

“With that data point, we sat back and said, ‘OK, it’s time to take the next step,’” he said. “The new assessment framework is more directly focused on using the architecture to drive agency performance.”

OMB developed a draft, solicited comments from agency chief information officers and their colleagues and is now evaluating comments to factor into the final version, he said.

The key element of the new framework will be measuring how well agencies are using their architectures to improve their performance and ability to fulfill their missions, Paul said.

“In that chain from good intentions to societal impacts, a lot of things have to happen,” he said.

The framework features three broad areas of emphasis. OMB will assess agencies’ process integration and the degree to which the integration of processes produces results in the management chain. That’s linked to strategic planning, he said.

OMB will also want to see how well agencies are implementing the idea of segmented architecture, a concept that just began circulating a couple of years ago. Segmented architecture means developing enterprise architecture approaches for discrete segments of an agency’s operations, designing them so they can link together but without requiring architects to tackle an entire organization at once.

The third area of emphasis in the new framework is reporting, Paul said. Agencies have been gradually moving toward a more standardized, structured assessment process using templates, making for greater uniformity.

Beverly Hacker, chief architect at Citizant, said agencies shouldn’t think of the framework as something entirely new. Even in the current framework, Version 2, OMB has been encouraging improved integration of architecture and capital planning and investment control, she said. Measurable performance improvement is not a new innovation either.

“I see this transition not so much as a priority shift but as the logical next level,” she said. “It is, however, easily a big enough bump up to be named 3.0. For folks to whom EA was primarily a compliance exercise,  [the new framework] may require a priority shift, but not so much for everyone else.”

Hacker, who was formerly former chief architect at both the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development departments, said OMB is doing a good job of involving the community in developing the new framework.

“I think that Kshmendra has really struck a brilliant balance between leading and listening,” she said. “OMB has taken the lead in developing the vision while getting significant assistance from federal agencies in developing the methodology and data standards required to get there. Agencies are being given a significant opportunity to comment and to influence the final form.”

OMB plans to implement the new framework in two cycles, one in February 2009 and the next a year later. Those dates could change if circumstances dictate it, but agencies will have ample time to prepare in any case, Paul said.

“We wanted to make sure there was ple nty of warning and no surprises,” he said.

Because OMB will measure process outcomes more directly than it has in the past, the effectiveness of the architecture will be more apparent, he said.

The new framework might also finally put to rest one of the more frequent criticisms of enterprise architecture: That in some cases agencies develop an architecture plan on paper to satisfy auditors, then shelve it.

“What we’re trying to do with assessment Version 3.0 is make sure we’re measuring outcomes,” Paul said. “I think in the early days of architecture, while folks were building basic levels of maturity and trying to puzzle through it, there was more” of the shelfware phenomenon, he said.

Andy Blumenthal, director of enterprise architecture and IT governance at the Coast Guard, said the new framework features some aspects that could be counterproductive. One is the emphasis on mature metrics, he said.

“As a proponent of user-centric enterprise architecture, which aims to make EA information as usable to key decision-makers throughout the agency as possible, I would advocate metrics that are both as meaningful and as simple as possible,” he said. “This is the opposite of complexity, which is what I hear when you use the phrase mature metrics.”

In addition to the risk of the standards being developed but not used, he said, too many metrics can dilute the effect of architecture. “I believe we need to develop metrics that are targeted, straightforward, and usable to our agency executives and OMB leadership,” he said.

Blumenthal also questioned the timing. “Given the lack of resources often allocated to enterprise architecture, it is possible that an expansion of the discipline at this time to emphasize segment and solutions architecture could end up diluting already-constrained resources and lessening the impact of the original overall EA,” he said.

As Paul presents the new framework to various groups and individuals in industry and government, he often fields questions on how much any of his efforts will mean after a new president, with new priorities, takes the White House in January.

His answer: Not much will change for enterprise architecture.

“Obviously, the policies and priorities of the next administration are going to be theirs,” he said. “Saying that, my personal opinion is the new guys coming in will look around at best practices, at what works and what delivers value. Architecture will come back, and it’ll be a best practice. It’ll be something that needs to be done.” 

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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