The Forest And the Trees

Agencies need to start considering IT as part of the big-picture strategic planning process.

An e-mail from the Transportation Department says it all.

A question asking how Transportation executives include information technology in top-level decisions that affect how the department will meet its missions drew this response from a department spokesman: "Strategic issues such as [those] are beyond the scope of the CIO."

And that, succinctly put, is one of the primary reasons government IT programs continue to fail, making it harder for agencies to meet their missions.

Study after study shows it. Business consultants preach it. Executives in the private sector know it. Making information technology a part of an organization's strategic plan on how it will fulfill its goals and mission increases the likelihood that the organization will do just that. It's called "strategic IT" or "alignment," as in aligning IT spending with business processes. It also includes considering the possibility that IT could generate new programs and policies that better meet agency goals.

The concept of strategic IT has been around for years, yet it remains a difficult one for many people to grasp. It requires thinking about IT as not just e-mail, or help desk services, or maintenance of data centers-though those applications and functions are important to a smooth-running agency. Rather, strategic IT can improve agency services, such as giving soldiers information via a real-time exchange of data over a wireless network with commanders, or gaining better insight into who might be a terrorist by conducting background checks on foreign visitors using fingerprint scans.

Strategic IT requires an agile process that includes conversations about an agency's overarching mission and the more granular IT requirements that can drive a mission forward. "Any time you have a strategic conversation, you dive from high altitudes to low and back again," says John Glaser, vice president and chief information officer of Partners Healthcare in Boston, who has testified on how health information systems could improve treatment for veterans and wounded soldiers. At Partners Healthcare, Glaser is integrating the systems of three organizations that plan to run a cancer center for clinical research and treatment. What an agency wants to accomplish is high altitude, Glaser says; how issues can be overcome is low altitude. "You bounce up and down," he says.

When considered strategically, technology contributes to larger initiatives. It's revolutionary, expanding the focus from a single project to an entire agenda. Are IT efforts aligned with the core business priorities? Can they deliver results, characterized by both cost savings and improved processes? Those are the kinds of questions that define strategic IT. It's transformational.

But as the Transportation example illustrates, much of the federal government has yet to grasp that managing IT strategically has value. Unless some fundamental changes are made, agencies will be locked in to the notion that IT is nothing more than making sure e-mail works, PCs are secured and the Web site functions.

"In government, there's a tendency to create IT plans that are out of sync with the needs and concerns of the missions," says David McClure, vice president of government IT management research at technology research firm Gartner and former director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office. "Often, agencies are just writing plans that are due to the Hill or [the Office of Management and Budget], or that have to be done before the budget can be approved. IT efforts become about compliance rather than business changes and strategic outcomes."

'The Wrong Direction'

Much of the private sector has mastered strategic IT. Consider online banking from financial institutions and point-of-sale systems in retail, both of which drive income and deliver never-before-known information on customers' habits back to boardrooms to help inform strategic decisions.

The CIO and the IT shop are in the middle of those strategic decisions. Last year, 43 percent of industry CIOs reported that the innovations that drove revenue and profits came from the IT office, up from 34 percent in 2006, according to a survey by CIO magazine. In addition, two-thirds of CIOs surveyed said they co-led innovations with the executives in charge of business functions. In that same survey, CIOs who said their IT projects and agenda were aligned with business goals reported that IT had created a new line of business more than twice as often as those CIOs who said they were not aligned.

This has serious implications for the public sector. It doesn't matter whether the goal is increasing revenue or delivering better health care.

Strategically aligning IT initiatives and budgets with an organization's business processes increases the chance that the goals will be met.

Still, the popular perception among executives who run federal agencies is that staffers in the technology office are propeller heads who come to the rescue when the blue screen of death appears on a PC or an e-mail folder is deleted accidentally. Many CIOs report to chief financial officers because technology is viewed as a means of cutting costs by improving efficiencies (which it can), not helping the agency deliver on its mission.

The 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act was supposed to change that. The law required agencies to appoint CIOs to lead the process of planning, acquiring and managing technology, and mandated that IT purchases be handled as capital investments.

But, says Ed Meagher, deputy CIO at the Interior Department, "With a few notable exceptions, we're moving in the wrong direction. Clinger-Cohen was the direct result of these same conversations in the 1990s, when folks recognized that IT is a $70-billion-a-year operation in government. But Clinger-Cohen has fundamentally been ignored. The CIO has no voice. He doesn't get invited to meetings, he gets his directions and gives feedback through a third party after decisions have already been made, and he only gets called in when things are broken."

Part of the problem lies in program management. Art Fritzson, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, leads the contractor's activities in net-centricity for the Defense Department-arguably the most strategic use of IT in the federal government today. It involves tying the military services together through wireless networks, which in turn defines the department's strategy to fight wars. But even there, he says, individuals can sometimes fail to see beyond their own requirements.

"At the highest level, every program manager is incentivized to maintain control so he's not dependent on others for success, and he's encouraged to build what he needs and only what he needs to get it delivered on time," Fritzson says. "That can work against strategic efforts, which often require systems to be using other systems and services. [Agencies] try to draw lines and pay for point-to-point connections, and end up with a bowl of spaghetti."

Four Types

Whether or not an agency treats IT strategically depends largely on the role of the CIO. McClure says CIOs typically fall into one of four categories. The first, and most common type, is the "doer." The doer focuses on technical and operational issues-the network, the infrastructure and applications like e-mail, for example. "Make sure there are no problems, keep the systems up and execute projects as they're handed down," McClure says. "It's difficult to be a strategic player in that kind of environment."

Under such circumstances, large IT projects often fail due to lack of support from top executives. "We have no big success stories," says the CIO of one large civilian agency, who asked to not be named. "More often than not, projects are abject failures. It's the constant sound of untold amounts of money flushed down the toilet, as we're forced to implement these disruptive processes that the workforce eventually forces out."

The second CIO type is the "service provider." This CIO takes the role of the doer one step further by executing IT operations very well and managing projects to deliver effective solutions. The infrastructure is stable, secure and efficient. What the service provider lacks, however, is the ability to engage the executives in charge of the mission side of the agency. Service providers are at the top of their game in terms of performance, but always behaving in a reactionary mode.

The third type, "the counselor," is plugged in to the agency's program needs and priorities and is able to reach out to the executives in charge of mission- oriented work. But other forces, such as understaffing, low funding, disengaged management or political battles, prevent the counselor's IT department from delivering because he or she isn't frequently consulted in developing the requirements for a project and aligning those requirements with the agency's mission. As a result, projects experience long delays, go over budget or fail to get off the ground.

Take the Census Bureau, for example, which has been forced to answer questions recently about its Field Data Collection Automation program to develop and issue more than 500,000 handheld computers that temporary workers will use to collect data for the 2010 census. In concept, the project has the potential to be strategic: to increase efficiency, save costs and improve the accuracy of census data.

But the project is behind schedule, over budget and plagued by software problems. Though Census Bureau managers insist the project is on track to be ready by 2010, reports by GAO, Congress and the research firm Mitre Corp. say otherwise.

Meagher calls the situation typical. "Instead of saying, 'What's the requirement? What do we need to get accomplished?' [agency leaders] say, 'Boy wouldn't it be great . . . ' then work backwards from that premise," he says. "We don't do miracles; we're implementers. For projects to work, we need locked-down, agreed-upon requirements that we helped develop, rather than being told the way someone else thinks it should be done according to some generic views of the world."

The last category of CIO is what McClure calls the "value seeker." This CIO, which is rare in government, is transformational and strategic, a communicator and collaborator, and successful at delivering outcomes. The value seeker has a seat at the table along with the mission-oriented officials and maintains co-ownership of programs from conceptualization to execution.

Strategic Leap

Value seekers might be hard to find, but they do exist. Mae DeVincentis, CIO at the Defense Logistics Agency, is one of them. In the 1990s, DLA started rolling out an enterprise resource planning system as part of its program to modernize its business operations. The system tracks and manages the inventory of supplies for the military-from tires to uniforms. When it was being developed, the agency's top executives met biweekly to hammer out the requirements and collaborate on a plan to deploy the system. DeVincentis was a key participant in those meetings.

"If you take every executive across the agency and demand they take an entire day every two weeks to get into the details of how this [program] is going to be engineered, that's a big commitment," De-Vincentis says. "While there is goodness in short-term change and events, there is also a need for long-term plans that maintain a general direction. That can be difficult and requires a person at the top to agree it's important to do."

DeVincentis says DLA's director, Lt. Gen. Robert Dail, who joined the agency in August 2006, is just that person. She credits Dail for recognizing that the ERP system could provide more strategic value. In 2005, the Office of the Secretary of Defense announced details of the latest base realignment and closure round, which included efforts to cut costs by transferring supply chain logistics systems at other Defense organizations to DLA.

"Gen. Dail came on board and said, 'Hey, you've done a great job with this ERP system. Now BRAC is happening, and the time is right to take that system and build it out,' " DeVincentis says. "He saw what it meant to the agency and the department, and he saw how we could better support our customers. We were able to take that strategic intention and turn it into an appropriate answer for the mission."

The agency has integrated two of 13 military supply locations into its ERP system. When it is complete, the services will be able to view through a Web portal what is available in the entire inventory of supplies, whether the product is at a base overseas or in the United States. Already, the ERP system and the consolidation have paid off. DLA has reduced the time it takes to deliver an order from 21 days to 15 days. In addition, the agency has cut the time it takes to notify a customer that it has received an order from more than a day to four hours. The reductions in overhead allowed DLA to reduce the fee it charges the military services to deliver orders from an average of 22 percent in 2000 to 14.4 percent in 2007.

All of which meant IT directly played a role in helping Defense better meet its strategic objectives. "Our intent is to provide services to focus on what is most important-warfighting," DeVincentis says. "But it's all just interesting unless you have metrics to show that you actually improved things."

From Strategy to Execution

During a town hall meeting in 2001, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered a description of the department's network-centric warfare strategy. "The single most transforming thing in our force will not be a weapons system, but a set of interconnections and a substantially enhanced capability because of [the resulting] awareness," he said.

Five years later, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England described netcentricity as "the backbone of everything we do in the department," whose capabilities are about "getting people the information they need, when and where they need it. Information has become a strategic asset for the department, and using it effectively is essential to the success of our mission."

Notice how those statements about technology and strategy-mentioned in the same sentence-came from the top two executives in the department. That doesn't happen often in government.

Moving from the concept of strategic IT to execution requires the top leaders to consider the CIO as part of the executive team. John Grimes, CIO at Defense and assistant secretary for networks and information integration since November 2005, sits on a three key leadership committees. He is a member of the secretary's Senior Leadership Review Group and the Defense Senior Leadership Council, chaired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He's also a member of the Deputy's Advisory Working Group, chaired by England.

"These groups address the department's strategies, requirements and resources," Grimes says. "It is recognized that IT is a critical strategic element in the deliberations that support our warfighter, intelligence and business systems."

When ideas are introduced, they are hashed out among the members with IT as part of the conversation. "You must begin with a clear concept of the outcome you are trying to achieve," Grimes continues. "If requirements are not initially specific, quantifiable, attainable and realistic, there is little chance of success."

To determine the requirements, which are tied to Defense's strategic plans, users must be involved in the process. Systems engineering must be planned upfront and carried through the project's life cycle to ensure standards are incorporated along the way. Good program management is essential for prioritizing and synchronizing resources, Grimes says, and "utilizing good judgment for the in-evitable tough trade-offs between time, cost and quality." The stakeholders in a project-not only the IT shop, but also those who will use the system-must take part in designing requirements that allow for flexibility and expansion of capabilities. The Defense Information Systems Agency, for example, created the Net-Centric Enterprise Services program to supply infrastructure services to support the applications and data used in a netcentric enterprise. In July 2007, Grimes and Dale Meyerrose, associate director and CIO of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, signed a memorandum that established a shared vision for information sharing between defense and intelligence agencies.

Such collaborative efforts allow strategic IT to blossom. Discussions held among the executive leaders of an agency's programs, bureaus and functions end up finding common needs and solutions. By using IT to bring these once disparate parts together, value is added.

But such collaboration is hard. Many reforms that require federal managers to share information have failed because doing so requires a momentous change in the bureaucratic culture in which information is power. "The culture of agencies feeling they own the information they gathered at taxpayer expense must be replaced by a culture in which the agencies instead feel they have a duty to . . . repay the taxpayers' investment by making that information available," Grimes says.

While the potential is enormous, culture is the most difficult hurdle for agencies to overcome for true strategic use of IT. Ingrained perceptions and business processes can be difficult to shake.

Still, CIOs like Meagher say it can be done. "Government [leaders] are running away from this because they think it's hard," he says. "But look at where it works and ask yourself why: They communicated, they did a breakdown of the work, they established good requirements, and someone in authority listened to the problems, risks and factors that needed to change and said, 'Make it so.'

"With that kind of process, any CIO with a good level of experience and management skills can pull it off."

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