Survey: Feds overwhelmed by OMB's management agenda

The revolution is not complete. Some would say it has barely begun. The Bush administration has made a good start in its two-year effort to reform the way government manages information technology, according to a Federal Computer Week survey of government IT managers.

Federal agencies have bought into the concepts, at least at a high level. But that has not necessarily translated into measurable results, the survey shows. (For methodology, see sidebar.)

Survey respondents said they have begun to institute many of the reforms pushed by the Office of Management and Budget since Mark Forman became the first federal e-government chief in June 2001. But by the time Forman left his post in August, the principle returns on that investment were still intangible.

The importance of some issues has been raised, especially the need to secure systems, seek out more management training, focus on making business cases for information systems and increase collaboration with other agencies to develop systems.

Many of these IT management reforms started during the Clinton administration. But federal IT experts say the survey indicates that under the latest OMB leadership, the government culture may have begun to truly adopt the new way of doing business.

The reforms are "getting beyond the front offices in that a fairly good amount of people are dealing with these issues," said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International LLC and chief of information policy and technology at OMB during the Clinton administration. Forman and "his team put a lot into this, and it's showing some results."

Other experts say the percentage of people who said they have changed the way they do business is still too low.

One problem may be that OMB's push forward has encountered resistance from federal workers caught up in the drudgery of their day-to-day work. According to the poll, many said they would like to change, but they lack the time or budget. Those responses indicate that the reforms are at risk of failing.

"There's a lot of going through the motions and pretending that we're [chief information officers], but folks don't have the knowledge to make these things reality," said Paul Brubaker, a partner at the consulting firm ICG Government and former deputy chief information officer at the Defense Department.

No time for business cases

One of OMB's high-profile reforms is the development of business cases to justify the investment in specific information systems.

OMB officials have withheld funding in cases in which IT managers have failed to specify how a system will result in better service to citizens or improved agency operations.

The officials may have caught agencies' attention by withholding system funds. The survey showed that 72 percent of respondents consider business cases fundamental to developing IT programs and that they consider them a high priority.

The numbers indicate that business cases are gaining traction among federal employees as something that will help them meet their missions, but "there's an obvious gap here in terms of training and skill sets," said John Spotila, former administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Administration and now president and chief operating officer of GTSI Corp.

Some responses showed disturbing trends, experts said. For example, 62 percent agreed with the statement that although they believe business cases are important, they do "not have the time to devote to writing comprehensive cases."

More than half — 54 percent — said they did not feel they had the knowledge or training to write good cases, and one in six IT managers said business cases "are not worth the time, and I do not consider it a priority."

OMB officials have been conducting training on Circular A-11, which outlines the requirements for investment planning, including Exhibit 300s, which detail the business case.

Clearly something more is required, though, because writing business cases is difficult, according to McConnell. After only a few years of enforcing business cases, with the rules changing each of those years, agencies are still only beginning to understand the full difficultly, he said. "This really is a snapshot of a work in progress," he said.

Security gets high marks

The survey was conducted between Aug. 19 and Sept. 4, following the worm and virus attacks that crippled global e-mail systems. Federal IT experts said information security should be high on federal IT managers' to-do lists when they develop new systems. And that largely seems to be the case.

FCW asked officials if they agreed that physical and electronic security were a top priority when developing new systems. A large majority — 78 percent — strongly agreed, and only 3.8 percent strongly disagreed.

IT leaders' security concerns are a promising sign, especially considering that they only began pushing security as a priority in mid-2000, when they turned their attention away from the Year 2000 problem, Spotila said. "That's real progress."

OMB officials declined to be interviewed for this article. But an official from the agency who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity said, "I think it shows that the effort of the administration is paying off."

However, some staff members on Capitol Hill were not as pleased with the 78 percent figure. "There's always room for improvement," said David Marin, spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees agency IT management. "The last thing we can afford is complacency, because there's still a long way to go."

Federal employees may be concerned about system-specific security, but they are not as concerned about how system security fits into a comprehensive security program agencywide, Brubaker said.

"They're looking at it too much in a micro way and not enough in a macro, enterprise way," he said.

No team work yet

OMB officials have been encouraging agencies to create systems once and use them many times across government. Yet, the survey shows that this is easier said than done.

Agencies are struggling to find similar projects and technologies at other agencies without additionally trying to develop business cases that build on pre-existing work.

Ten percent of respondents said they do not seek out agencies that may have similar information systems, and other agencies have not contacted them for information on their systems. Although 19 percent said they consider looking for other information systems, they "have little time to do the research." Thirteen percent said that looking for similar systems governmentwide "is not a top priority for me or my agency." That's more than 40 percent of IT program and project managers who are not trying to find information systems in other agencies that could provide the same functions.

Those numbers should concern OMB officials because research into similar systems is "something you absolutely have to do before you start building your own," said Bob Woods, chairman of the Industry Advisory Council.

All things considered, however, that number isn't too high, Spotila said. "We often find people are spread pretty thin, and it's hard to perform that kind of comprehensive search," he said.

One in five IT managers saying that they don't have time for research is a symptom of a deeper problem, McConnell said.

Although OMB officials are already using cross-agency information on systems and programs that agencies submit to the federal enterprise architecture, agencies do not yet have access to that information. They also cannot access other agencies' business cases or even the basic list of IT programs that OMB releases with the budget.

"You don't have the kind of detailed information you need, and you don't have the time to find out about this kind of information," McConnell said.

The CIO Council has served as a clearinghouse for information on systems that agencies are working on, and it should move into that role again, said Alan Balutis, president and chief operating officer of Veridyne Inc. and former deputy CIO at the Commerce Department.

OMB officials need to make it easier to find systems that are similar and do the same work. "If OMB and the CIO Council want agencies to do that kind of research, shouldn't you make that easily available, make that an easy thing to do?" Balutis said. "You don't want them to find a reason not to do it. You ought to be doing something to facilitate this."

Many agencies, recognizing the lack of experience in developing business cases, have turned to industry for help in writing the business cases. One in four IT managers said they have outsourced or plan to outsource the writing of business cases. Training will fill that gap, McConnell said.

"The real problem is it's not just about skills," he said. More than anything else, putting together a good business case requires collaboration between the IT and program staffs, he said.

Asked to rank how closely IT managers are working with programmatic staffs in their agencies on a scale of one to 10, with one representing not working closely at all and 10 working very closely, nearly 70 percent ranked their interaction at six or higher. More than 38 percent ranked their interaction with programmatic staffs at eight to 10. Those numbers match what National Academy for Public Administration officials have seen as they've been working with agencies, said Al Ressler, director of the Center for Human Resources Management at the academy.

But 40 percent only somewhat agreed — scoring it between five and seven — that collaboration is increasing, and this lukewarm agreement "certainly doesn't suggest that there has been some powerful shift here," Spotila said.

Within a single agency, collaboration support must extend beyond the CIO to all program leaders. The dialogue must occur on both sides, and both must want to work together, experts said.

Fostering this collaboration across government, however, must be driven by OMB and the President's Management Council, and employees must see that it isn't just about talking, it's about doing, Ressler said.

Congress also has a role to play by closely watching the agencies' progress of modernizing along the common lines of business that cross agency boundaries, Marin said.

More agencies will pay attention as OMB and agencies demonstrate how all of the pieces of e-government help the citizens, the agencies and the employees. "You've got to find a common base of why it makes sense," Ressler said.

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