Say goodbye to the era of the grand design

Agencies urged to update systems a little at a time, not all at once

The era of the “grand design” program — a modernization juggernaut that sucks up tens of millions of dollars a year in pursuit of a goal that's stunning in its audacity and maddening for its elusiveness — finally might be drawing to a quiet close.

In recent weeks, the Office of Management and Budget has worked with numerous agencies to scale back, restructure or cancel modernization projects that were over budget, off schedule and generally off course.

Such course corrections are not altogether unprecedented, but OMB’s new methodical approach to suspending, reviewing and rethinking programs has put agencies on notice.

“For too long, the government has been reluctant to make the tough management decisions to terminate, halt or turnaround failing projects,” Federal CIO Vivek Kundra told the CIO Council, according to a transcript of his speech Sept. 20.

Kundra and company have no such qualms. In mid-September, for example, OMB announced the cancellation or restructuring of three financial systems modernization projects that had not passed muster during a review of troubled financial systems projects.

OMB and the Veterans Affairs Department already pulled the plug on the Financial Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprises (FLITE) system, a massive effort to update VA’s accounting systems.

Massive is the key term. As networking and computing power have evolved, federal officials often have attempted to modernize operations in sweeping programs that quickly become , in current parlance, too big to fail. How do you tell taxpayers — to say nothing of congressional committees — that you spent hundreds of millions or a billion dollars or more and have nothing to show for it?

As it turns out, you start by telling them how much money they will save. Between VA FLITE and the three more recent financial systems being rethought or cashed out, the Obama administration expects to save $760 million.

The next step, according Kundra’s playbook, is to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The administration is advocating a more bite-sized approach to modernization, focusing on individual systems or functional areas rather than the whole shebang.

That’s the administration’s plan with financial systems, writes J. Nicholas Hoover at InformationWeek. OMB is encouraging agencies to modernize large systems in segments, focusing on mission-critical functions first.

"In the past, we’ve tried to change everything at once, standardize and streamline the entire operation, but that takes longer and drives up risk,” said OMB Comptroller Daniel Werfel.

In addition to saving money, a segmented approach to modernization should get new technology into the field more quickly.

Officials at the Interior Department expect that to be the case with its Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System, which was designed to give its 6,000 law enforcement officers access to security and emergency management information.

The original plan for the system “was four years behind schedule and far too complex,” Kundra told Marjorie Censer at the Washington Post. Interior officials have developed a plan for delivering new technology every six months until the system is fully fielded in December 2012.

However, even the most modest plans can run into problems.

A report issued Sept. 8 by the Government Accountability Office criticizes OMB for not giving agencies enough guidance on how to take a more manageable approach to financial systems, reports Dave Perera at Fierce Government IT.

In short, OMB’s design was none too grand.

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