When 'no' is the right answer

Horace Blackman

Horace Blackman says that 'no' is sometimes the best answer to new ideas.

Editor's note: This story has been modified to correct Blackman's title and the VA budget figure.

Nike’s famous slogan “Just do it” has become a philosophy of sorts for athletes and everyday gym enthusiasts

In government, it may not be so wise. Sometimes saying no is the best response to ideas. It can mean the difference between a program succeeding on budget or snowballing out of control, according to an official at the Veterans Affairs Department.

 “Successful projects always have one thing is common: There’s a specific ‘we need to do this to build a system that accomplishes a specific task or a set of tasks,’ and there’s a unanimous  understanding of what those things are and what those requirements are,” said Horace Blackman, VA’s acting senior adviser to VA CIO Roger Baker, and benefits IT consumer advocate. In every program where difficulties arise, he said, “problems start when you cannot succinctly describe what it is you’re trying to do.”

Blackman was one of the panelists at a luncheon hosted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management. 

Blackman offered an analogy: soup. Imagine you are trying to make soup for 10 people, but as you work, others add ingredients or make sudden changes to the recipe. The soup becomes more complex – and more costly, he said.

“And before you know it, you’ve lost sight of the clear-cut objectives,” Blackman said. “My rule of thumb is: If you can’t explain to anybody who doesn’t understand what these programs are or what they do in 30 seconds, you probably need to go back and redefine what you’re doing.”

Saying no is a key strategy to preventing programs from hemorrhaging money, a far too common occurrence. In 2009, for example, the Government Accountability Office found that the Homeland Security and Commerce departments and NASA had the largest cost overruns among major IT projects, totaling as much as $2 billion.

Mission focus is a criteria for saying yes or no, he added. When Baker first joined the agency, VA had hundreds of programs, many of which were not successful, Blackman said. Under Baker’s leadership, the agency canceled many of those programs, then shifted its attention to other priorities that mattered more to the agency mission, including improving access to veterans care and clearing the claims backlog, Blackman said.

“The question was: Are the things we do and the money we spend – the $3.2 billion – aligned with those things? I think you really have to come back to that level,” he said.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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