Master the mechanics of IT management

SUBJECT: Technology

While you may not have come to Washington to manage information technology, you should pay attention to it for two reasons. First, if you leverage IT effectively, it will help you achieve your goals. Second, if IT is managed poorly in your agency, it has the potential to thwart your agenda, tarnish your legacy, become a major distraction, and take up a large amount of your time and energy.

While IT is an area that is subject to hype, over-promises and significant risks, it also has great potential.
You have more flexibility with technology than in changing the amount of funds your agency now has. IT can be a tool to change the way your agency does business, to redesign work processes and to eliminate inefficient ways of working. Technology also increases economies of scale.

There are five elements to successfully managing information technology in your organization.

1. Begin with your policy and program objectives. Begin with what you want to accomplish. Then, and only then, bring in the technology experts to assess how technology can help you reach those goals. Get them to frame the technology agenda in terms of the mission to be achieved or the customers to be served. The technology agenda might include better service delivery, lower costs or more transparency.

The technology agenda linked to your mission is not faster processors, more bandwidth or infrastructure.

A large number of big government IT projects involve upgrading infrastructure or various support systems, such as financial management systems. Though important, this is not where the big payoffs are. Infrastructure and financial systems should be viewed as means to an end. Make sure someone is watching them, but put your energy in the efforts to enhance what your agency actually does. Make sure those projects are driven by the mission, not [by] your IT or financial folks.

Technology can be the enabler of new ways of doing business or can be used to make your existing business model more effective or efficient. Your vision can embrace either or both. If you embrace it as the enabler, consider getting other organizations to do some of the work and even to support your mission.

Plan on significant changes to what work needs to be done. Look to similar organizations for lessons on how best to pursue this strategy. If you focus on improving the current business model, plan on fewer and more formally managed operations supporting multiple programs. These will replace the multiple program-specific applications that are typical in the government.

2. Get a handle on your ongoing IT projects before there is a crisis. Large IT projects often fail. In the federal government, they fail publicly. It is a near certainty that your agency has projects under way that have been going on for years with past or planned expenditures in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It is important for you to get a handle on these projects early in your tenure. You should consider bringing in outside experts to do a quick independent review of the projects and give you a sense of the risks the projects face. You should act on their recommendations.

You should also ensure that your chief information officer has a process for reviewing progress on an ongoing basis. You should request that projects provide incremental deliverables every few months.
Make sure that the deliverables are used, user satisfaction is measured, and the results are factored into later phases. Even given all this, be prepared for a crisis involving a system de velopment effort getting into trouble. Have a contingency plan.

3. Make sure you have a capable, qualified and effective chief information officer. An effective CIO will be critical to your success and must be able to deal effectively with both technology and the agency mission it supports. Your CIO must have strong program, technical, management and people skills and will be the person who translates mission needs into technology solutions. This is a difficult job, and those with the needed skills are in short supply. A key component of the CIO job will be to work closely with the Office of Management and Budget to secure resources and respond to its oversight of your agency’s projects.

Most agencies are limited by legacy IT systems that barely get the work done, cost a fortune to maintain, are inflexible and lock operations into outmoded approaches. Technically savvy in-house staff is in short supply, and much of the work is done by contractors. More modern technology that would give you needed flexibility is difficult to develop and requires a discipline across organizational lines that is rare in government agencies. Your CIO will be critical to making it all work.

4. Empower your CIO but have a process for reconciling IT and other imperatives. Making programs work depends on combining money, people, technology and contracts. Effective technical solutions cross organizational lines and require that representatives of the different disciplines work together as a team. Solutions require reconciling various interests. The CIO must have the power to enforce technology decisions. You also will need to ensure that you have a process that reconciles the interests of key players in your department, such as your chief financial officer, and have mechanisms for balancing the very real issues that will arise.

Do not get engaged in the debate over who among the key players in your department is in charge, who is more important or who reports to whom. Instead, empower the CIO to ensure that IT issues are properly addressed. Your CIO will almost certainly be turning off obsolete systems, forcing the buying of different software than others want and directing the migration of existing users to new systems.
These moves, though necessary to meeting program or customer needs, will clash with existing ways of operating. Expect conflict but ensure there is a process for resolving it.

5. Make sure security and privacy concerns are a priority for program managers. The trends in technology are to connect everyone to everything. Privacy and security problems that were minor with 20 participants are horrendous if millions of people might be involved. It is a near certainty that during your tenure, your agency will lose a laptop [PC] full of sensitive information, have a security breach that affects service delivery or have some other public crisis involving security.

Previous crises mean your agency is already spending millions on compliance reviews and certifications. Your inspector general is doing reviews as well. Make sure that your senior managers take security and privacy seriously as an operational matter. Your program managers should be regularly testing security and using the results to improve it. They should not be depending solely on IG audits.

You should support these efforts. There is more to security than getting the paperwork right. Have a contingency plan for a possible incident. In short, security should be viewed as part of your program management responsibilities.

Starting a project
Question: What questions should I ask at the start of an IT project?
Answer: Asking a series of simple questions will usually lead t more insight than volumes of written justifications and [Microsoft] PowerPoint presentations. This is particularly true when asking questions about large IT programs that develop their own momentum.

  • How does this project help my agency achieve its mission? Any project that comes to your attention will be significant. The program manager needs to be able to explain why it is important in mission or customer terms. Don’t accept justifications [such as] the need for the latest technology, compliance with a regulatory mandate or a previously made decision. Of course, these factors can be important, but they must be tied to how they help achieve the mission. The justification should be framed in mission terms.

  • Who is the customer, and what does that customer want from the project? Meeting a need means there should be a customer who will say whether [the project] was successful. Make sure that the customer is engaged and looking forward to the results and that there is a process that balances customer desires with technical realities.

  • Does the project management team have the wherewithal to deliver, and is there a management framework to give them a fighting chance? Any technology that matters will cross organizational lines in your agency and perhaps with other agencies. Success requires that you have a strong project manager and that there is a project management framework in place to work together effectively between those different organizations.

Your agency should have a systematic approach to project management, including a standard methodology. Project managers should be full-time, have formal project management certifications, be accountable for project success and have authority over project budgets. Are they, and do they have the necessary experience, given the size of the project?

Projects should have deliverables in the short run — a few months — that are real and can be used by customers. Do they?

There needs to be a formal process for raising and resolving issues that cross organizational lines. Is there?

Important projects need regular and real executive involvement. Who is that executive, and how is he or she engaged?

Projects tend to take on a life of their own once started. No one wants to take responsibility for stopping them if they start to fail. The temptation is to wait a while longer, hope for the best and at worst give the problem to a successor. Projects need formal go/no-go gates at the end of each key phase. What are those gates, and are they real?

  • Does the IT strategy make sense? It might seem the height of arrogance to second-guess the technology judgment of experts in the field. Nonetheless, there are some basics that you ignore at your peril. They involve architecture, proprietary versus standard solutions and what others are doing. New technology may solve a business problem but may be proprietary and lock you into a single [vendor] or very few vendors. If the approach is proprietary, why is it and what is the strategy to avoid being locked in?

What are similar organizations doing? If your agency is doing something different, why? Has anyone else done this? Did it work?

Finally, and most important, if the project fails, what is the fallback strategy?

Terminating a project
Question: What are the factors to consider in ending a project?
Answer: Hopefully, problems will be identified while they still can be fixed. Unfortunately, hopes do not always become reality, and you may need to shut down some projects. This will be harder to do the longer you wait. When you first come into your agency, you may even find projects that have been on hold, waiting for the coup de grace to fall on someone else’s (your) watch. Expect that the longer a project has been going and the more that has been spent, the harder it will be to kill.

Candidates for termination are:

  • Projects that are in deep trouble according to basic project-tracking criteria, such as milestones and budgets being missed by more than 10 percent, substantial changes to scope or redefinition of milestones, and the absence of engagement of key stakeholders.

  • Projects that are no longer in alignment with the business strategy of the agency.

  • Projects that customers no longer value. Even a project that looks great in terms of milestones and budget should be canceled if the customers no longer need or want it.

  • Projects that depend on issues being resolved but for which no resolution is in sight.

Skills of the project management team or engagement of the executive sponsor may also be a reason to terminate a project, but it is also quite likely that new staff can be brought in or the priorities of the executive sponsor adjusted. This may be much less costly than project termination.

However, what may be most important is what to do after the project is terminated. There may be practical and legal issues if one terminates a project. Find out what they are and then develop a strategy to address these issues. Terminating a project also requires an alternate strategy to meet the need that the project was to meet. Expect to consult with OMB, potentially Congress and other stakeholders both before and after the decision. You may find many stakeholders eager to help you make a decision of this sort.

You should require your staff to develop the alternative strategy and have them assure you that it will not lead to the problems that led to the termination. It is also important to keep in mind that a decision to terminate is likely to attract attention from outside your agency. How you explain the decision will be an important part of the mitigation strategy. 


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