5 tips for managing in tough times

Veteran government IT leaders offer tips for keeping projects on track in the face of staff and budget cuts.

As government budgets tighten, agency IT executives need to find ways to keep their most important projects and initiatives moving forward with fewer people and less money. To do all that, they also need to keep staff morale high.

Government IT professionals are a resourceful bunch, but you probably already know that. Here are some ideas for managing in tough times, courtesy of federal leaders. Feel free to crib.

Tip 1: Use many hands, Gov 2.0-style

No one enjoys getting more work piled on them when the organization has to tighten its belt. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t willing — or even excited — to pitch in beyond their regular duties and help colleagues solve workplace problems. And if that kind of mutual support and goodwill eases the strain on another part of the organization, what’s not to like?

That help-your-neighbor spirit is figuring into the General Services Administration’s massive migration to a new e-mail system, and it will be a cost-effective way to ease the adoption of new technologies in the future, said GSA CIO Casey Coleman.

The agency recently moved its 17,000 employees from an older in-house e-mail system to Google Apps for Government, a cloud-based e-mail and collaboration service. To support the migration, the agency created an online employees-only forum that is a collection of questions and answers from co-workers about using Google Apps. It’s similar to popular public websites such as Quora and Yahoo Answers.

“We wanted to make sure we were not going to experience spikes of demand on our help desk and, therefore, user dissatisfaction with long wait times and not getting timely assistance,” Coleman said.

“It’s a model that has a lot of relevance going forward and can be used in a variety of situations,” she added.

Tip 2: Tap your inner maverick

In these tough economic times, it is inspiring to know that a determined individual can start a federal open-data project on a shoestring budget. That is what happened with the National Library of Medicine’s online Pillbox tool for visually identifying drugs in pill form.

In the project’s early stages, the goal was “small, fast and cheap,” said David Hale, Pillbox project manager. The format and layout were drawn in pencil on a sheet of paper, and the prototype was in Microsoft PowerPoint.

Hale said he used his personal Twitter account on his own time to spread the word about the project and seek advice — and, later, coding assistance — from tech-savvy volunteers. For example, a college student created a voice-only version of Pillbox for no charge, he said.

The networking paid off: Hale won an early endorsement for Pillbox from Todd Park, chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department, who helped the project move to the next level.

Throughout the process, Hale fluctuated between staying within proper management channels and going outside the box. “Why not just push the edge?” he asked.

Tip 3: Get in front of the cuts

The worst position to be in when a big budget contraction starts is off guard and reacting hastily, especially when critical government operations hang in the balance.

Given the general sense that federal spending is on a downward trend and knowing that IT is always at the top of the list of things to cut, IT officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration are laying the groundwork now for the leaner days ahead, said J. Travis Howerton, NNSA’s chief technology officer and CIO at the agency’s Y-12 Site Office.

“If we’re going to provide the services the mission needs, we have to get our price point within the future budget target in advance,” Howerton said. “I think we have to get 30 percent cheaper, and we have to do it within a year.”

NNSA has launched an aggressive five-part strategy to achieve those savings. The plan includes hardware and network consolidation, a transition to some cloud computing, smarter security approaches, and accelerating application development and new technology adoption by using agile approaches and sharing common product certifications across divisions.

The more efficient operations should allow for less painful staff reductions through normal attrition, while future programs can be funded in part with savings achieved by making existing ones more efficient, Howerton said.

Tip 4: Don’t treat your employees like mushrooms

Major cuts to staff and budgets cause employees to worry and quickly become demoralized. To keep employees from the edge of gloom, managers need to share the information they have about cuts as that information arrives.

Keeping workers in the dark about what’s happening only causes more problems, said Bob Woods, who worked for 29 years as a key official in the federal IT community and is now president of Topside Consulting Group.

Employees wonder how changes will affect them. “It gets very personal pretty quickly,” Woods said. For instance, an employee might cancel a family trip after hearing rumors about staff cuts, he added.

Cafeteria chitchat based on rumors can stir up more, often unfounded concerns.

“Rumors can run rampant, and you know everyone likes a good rumor,” Woods said.

Senior officials can quell rumors by telling employees what they know. But managers often don’t see it that way. Woods said they might decide to hold back information because they don’t know everything about the situation, but that’s the wrong approach.

Early in his career, Woods said his managers often avoided telling employees what was going on. He got frustrated and decided he would do things differently when he became a manager. Accordingly, as a senior government official, he sent a weekly newsletter via e-mail to the people he supervised. That way they got the information early from a reliable source.

Tip 5: Know what to cut, then cut it

Roger Baker, CIO at the Veterans Affairs Department, has experienced good and bad times in industry and government. One thing he has learned: When the bad times roll in, don’t waste time fretting over poor performers.

You have to know what is most important to the success of the agency’s mission and then be willing to cut low-priority items entirely rather than using a “salami slice” approach to the situation, he said.

Organizations must force themselves to either reduce or close problematic programs.

“They take all of your time, and their failures cause others to question the viability of your entire portfolio of programs,” he said.

Other attitudes go hand-in-hand with that discipline. One of the most important is the willingness to constantly measure IT benchmarks — such as uptime, response time and growth in bandwidth — because when it comes to identifying problem areas, “facts beat anecdotes every time,” Baker said.

He added a bit of advice he believes is vital to a disciplined approach to problems but is often overlooked in the race to protect precious resources.

“Speak mission first,” he said. “IT is important only in how it allows the mission to be done better, faster and cheaper.”

Read more of the 2011 Federal List.

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