Why feds need to get better at studying IT best practices

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems’ Internet Business Solutions Group.

The CIO Council has launched a best practices site to serve as an online learning and collaboration resource for IT management. It is part of the Obama administration’s initiative to strengthen program management, as outlined in the 25-point reform strategy announced in December 2010 by Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, and Federal CIO Vivek Kundra.

The council has tapped CIOs Michael Locatis (Energy Department), Chris Smith (Agriculture Department) and Teri Takai (Defense Department) to lead its new Management Best Practices Committee, which will maintain the site. Having once guided a similar best practices initiative for the council, I applaud this effort.

Kundra is on record as noting that the government does not have a sterling record in delivering quality IT solutions in a timely, cost-effective manner.

There are plenty of familiar examples of government IT programs suffering multimillion-dollar overruns, schedule slips measured in years and dismal mission-related results. In fact, only a few days before the site launched, Kundra testified during a Senate subcommittee hearing titled “Examining the President’s Plan for Eliminating Wasteful Spending in Information Technology.”

Senators and other witnesses cited a few familiar examples of programs that have gone off the tracks, including the electronic archives initiative at the National Archives and Records Administration, the handheld computer debacle in the 2010 census, and the Homeland Security Department’s SBInet border initiative. Such examples are all too common.

Now consider the effect of that accretion of obituaries of so-called runaway systems. What are the consequences of creating a false image of a federal landscape littered with the remains of failed IT initiatives? What impressions do we create?

Let’s make it a multiple-choice answer:

a) The American public and Congress get little in return for the more than $80 billion invested each year in IT in the federal government.
b) Most federal systems projects are rife with fraud, abuse, waste and mismanagement.
c) Most federal IT managers couldn’t run a roadside vegetable stand if you spotted them the vegetables and had the highway patrol flag down passing drivers.
d) All of the above.

Organizational expert Herbert Kaufman once wrote, “One must understand sickness and death to understand health; pathology contains many of the clues to normality.” He was arguing for the study of organizational terminations and eliminations as part of the public administration discipline.

But when it comes to the IT literature read by CIOs and program managers, just the opposite is needed. We excel at assembling autopsies. In looking at articles, publications and public testimony about federal IT, we have too few examples of projects delivered on time and within budget that also have the promised functionality. So instead, we have focused on our failures.

I once likened that approach to studying medicine by only doing autopsies. From that, we assemble guidance on what not to do, what problems and pitfalls to avoid. We have too few studies of healthy projects and successful systems implementations. We have too little guidance on what we should do and what has led to past successes.

CIOs ought to be documenting successful applications as an ongoing part of their responsibilities. I look forward to seeing the CIO Council’s best practices website expand and grow to meet that need.

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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Reader comments

Thu, May 5, 2011

23 years of this and it appears the technology in government is barely functioning. there is no place for innovation. clearly no place for any intelligence either. you start thinking and you are in deep mess. this has lately been the most de-motivational place to exist i have ever encountered.

Thu, May 5, 2011 Interested Party

I have to take issue with the Robert Yarush post in that he is obviously viewing only a very small slice of government. It does not appear to me to be a particularly helpful perspective. Given all of the special challenges of working within the government, overall, the results are pretty good. Yes, there are certainly some bad examples such as those enumerated in this article, but you really don't hear about all of the good outcomes, and there are many. With shifting budgets, annual appropriations, more people doing oversight than you have doing the work, and a pay/performance system that doesn't move at the speed of business, I think people do amazingly well. Try saddling private sector with all of these challenges and see how well they perform. Having spent some significant time in private sector, I understand the tremendously beneficial driving force of having the single motive of profit. Government work has other motivations, but they are much harder to harness.

Tue, May 3, 2011 Robert Yarush Camp Phoenix,Afghanistan

I truly believe the government has no ambitions to streamline... implement best practices...or anythihng to over all see that their networks are running smoothly. They seem... it appears to me is employ people. They dont even care who they employ... as long as they have plenty of them. Its really surprising to me that the government network arent breached much more than we hear about... its just so all over the place in the ways they implement network operations. Its what has always discouraged me from actually wanting to be a government employee....

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