Report: Government needs to focus on IT leadership, managing risk

A recent study concludes that federal IT purchasing and management can be improved through stronger IT leadership, managing risk more effectively and agile development practices.

A recent study submitted to the Obama administration recommended a 33-step plan for improving federal information technology purchasing and management, including securing stronger IT leadership, managing risk more effectively and turning to agile development practices.

The study, authored by TechAmerica Foundation's commission on Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century, was released in response to the Office of Management and Budget's announcement that it planned to focus on ways to improve federal technology acquisition and management processes. Earlier this year, the Obama administration froze many large-scale technology implementations.

After reading through the commission's study, some IT executives said the government's IT operations stand to significantly benefit if they heed the advice the plan offers.

"From an IT delivery perspective, they did a great job explaining, in very simple terms, agile development," said Angelo Valletta, senior vice president and CIO at Vineland, N.J.-based Sun National Bank. "The document reads like a framework on how to deliver IT development services to government agencies."

The report also stressed strong communication and collaboration among all levels of IT working on a project, which should be led by a strong leadership team. This idea was echoed by Ed Bell, interim CIO of the commonwealth of Massachusetts’ House and Senate, after reviewing the report.

"I think either the leadership team is there, or all bets are off," Bell said. "I would view the executive leadership sponsors as being very important to getting it done. If they are heavily engaged, they can make things happen."

Bell agreed with Valletta that agile development, with its emphasis on incremental development, would be beneficial because it would break projects into smaller pieces, thereby increasing their chances for success. But he cautioned against giving agile development too much leeway.

"With larger projects, sometimes you are biting off more than you can chew," Bell said. "With an agile environment, there is more flexibility, and you are able to make adjustments. But it can also drain the development team if there is too much flexibility."

Other key recommendations that would improve the way the government acquires core IT systems include:

•         Developing a professional program management capability. Every major purchase should start with the full-time assignment of a single, knowledgeable and authoritative program manager who sees the project through to completion.

•         Strengthening risk management. The government should establish an independent risk review role on major acquisitions. This role should be filled by a third party not affiliated with either the agency managing the project or the prime contractor supporting it.

•         Enhance internal and external engagement. Teams responsible for IT purchasing need to engage more effectively with end users to ensure that the systems delivered meet the users’ mission/business needs.

The last recommendation may be the most important, Bell said. Being engaged by all aspects of the project, combined with establishing clarity regarding roles among those involved, improves the chance of success, he said. He added that the report should have put even more emphasis on the importance of a strong leadership team.

"First and foremost, the entire organization needs to be engaged, not just the leadership team and not just IT," Bell said. "I think they are headed down the right path, but I would emphasize more the executive sponsorship and leadership sponsorship."

The document reads like a framework on how to deliver IT development services to government agencies.

Angelo Valletta, senior vice president and CIO, Sun National Bank

The commission, which comprises 31 senior leaders from private industry and academia with federal IT experience, made its recommendations based on interviews with government technology leaders and industry executives focused on both public and commercial sectors.

In another finding, the commission noted that while the federal government uses thousands of complex applications to provide essential services to U.S. citizens, there is a significant gap among the level of IT services available to many of those citizens and the levels available throughout much of the government. During the past 10 years, the government has invested some $600 billion in IT systems, but the report notes that there are areas in the government's "IT portfolio" that are underperforming, including:

•         Many government workers still use systems that are far less capable than those used by their counterparts in private industry or those they use at home.

•         The Federal IT Dashboard gives a red rating to 7% of 794 current major IT investments.

•         Some major projects were so plagued with cost overruns or performance that they were canceled before they could even get off the ground.

There are several obstacles that typically stand in the way of the successful completion of federal IT projects, according to the study. They include the "complexity of the processes to be supported, volume of data, number of users, connections to other systems, and security and privacy concerns that can all pose significant technical and management challenges," the report states.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Ben Cole, Associate Editor.

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