Pentagon management chiefs pursue ‘cross-functionality’

Integrating and modernizing the Defense Department's mammoth business operations requires "collaboration and conversation across organizations in which everyone has equity," the department's deputy chief management officer said Tuesday.

On the eve of her first anniversary in a job created in 2008, Beth McGrath spoke on topics such as electronic health records, insourcing and speeding up security clearances at a breakfast in Government Executive's Leadership Briefings series.

Exploiting technology to speed processes in key areas such as acquisition requires thinking "like a basketball team-- you can't have all guards or all centers," McGrath said. It also requires a willingness to question the status quo, she said, noting that only about one-fifth of her $7 billion budget is for IT modernization. "That means we're spending more on sustaining a legacy" rather than on "reducing the legacy footprint," she said. "There's some 2,500 existing programs, and we can't afford them all."

McGrath's assistant deputy chief, Dave Wennergren, said the real "game changer" is the office's focus on horizontally managed end-to-end processes -- procurement to pay, hire to retire, for example -- rather than a vertical focus on stand-alone organizations in which employees feel they have to "own" things. End-to-end also "allows you to align results and measure progress," he added, which is necessitated by today's fiscal constraints and rapidly changing technology.

Nowhere is this more dramatic than in information technology acquisition, Wennergren said, where there is a need to deliver customer service and open platforms that can be shared. "The analog is the iPhone and the Android," he said. "We can't make a new IT platform for every new system that comes out."

A concrete example of this approach is the effort by Defense and the Veterans Affairs departments to create a joint electronic health record for service members. These two agencies "share more than any two organizations in the world," Wennergren said. "The health records should be seamless rather than just two organizations sharing, meaning service-oriented and not system-oriented." The goal is a more data-driven, modular product that is "available to anyone who is authorized -- it's a fundamental change."

McGrath added that the joint health record also requires a change in culture, understanding, for example, how pharmacies are dealt with differently at the Pentagon and at VA. "Filling prescriptions should be the same," but it requires a "fundamental and foundational" change to avoid errors and create a "single data model" with common forms, she said.

One of the successes helped along by the Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer has been a steep reduction in the long-criticized processing time for security clearance applications. "The federal investigative standards had been the same since the era of J. Edgar Hoover and the Cold War," McGrath said. "The status quo is easy, and you can't change it if you don't ask questions."

Using a "policy process approach" of mapping the typical stages, her group applied IT to ease data collection and sharing -- the Office of Personnel Management now delivers the applications electronically instead of by mail or by truck. Computers were programmed to label routine applications with "no issues" so that people don't waste time reviewing them. And the group moved four or five adjudication offices to a single office, McGrath said.

Result? The backlog of 600,000 applications disappeared, and the average processing time shrunk from 365 days to 47. The new system also helped bring the related hiring time down from 144 days to 107, she added.

McGrath also reported a "shift" in the Obama administration's efforts at "insourcing" of functions, until recently performed by contractors, that are considered inherently governmental. "I've seen the pendulum go right and left and back, but at the end of day it's who's doing the work," she said. "In acquisition, we did outsource a significant amount of activity but didn't maintain the proper level of government oversight, and the performance wasn't going well. We outsourced too much, we had skills gaps and it was applied inconsistently in the department."

The Pentagon workforce always needs "good program managers, and not everyone can be a good program manager," especially a good IT program manager, she said.

But given the current fiscal crunch, her department built the fiscal 2012 Defense budget with the notion "everything is on the table," the result being that insourcing has slowed. "It will be more deliberative, a dialogue on workforce mix that is tied to strategy," McGrath said.

Such a workforce mix will be the key to her office's strategic management plan due next month, which will aim for "the right mix of active-duty and civilian contractors." Wennergren said the power of the plan will be its "alignment of systems are part of the broader federal government. What makes it valuable is that it will be tied to results."

"Some say our work is exciting, while others say it's really just the back office," McGrath said. "But we're making sure the warfighters have what they need."

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