ADVICE+DISSENT: Managing Technology Outside Job
As IT contracts expand, striking a balance between oversight and flexibility isn't easy.
There's a reason someone came up with the phrase "too many cooks in the kitchen." A proliferation of skills, techniques and often egos can certainly spoil the broth-or in the case of government information technology, an entire network infrastructure. At the same time, going it alone is rarely an option, as internal IT teams shrink at an even faster rate than the rest of the federal workforce, and contractors bring specialized skills to the table.
So, as IT projects grow ever more expansive, chief information officers are forced to adjust their strategies, focusing more on delegation and contract oversight and less on systems. Managing relationships with industry partners becomes a top priority.
"I've seen situations where there seems to be two different teams-one against the other, with a natural angst between the contracting and government [groups]," says Ken Calabrese, chief technology officer at the Health and Human Services Department. "My philosophy is you have to maintain arm's length, but have an environment where people can make mistakes and not get beaten up. It can't be the government against the contractor, but government with the contractor to satisfy the requirements."
IT environments unquestionably have become more complex, but often problems don't involve the technology itself. Whether agencies use a single platform or opt for a heterogeneous environment, open standards have done wonders in allowing products from various vendors to work well together. And government regulations take much of the guesswork out of system configurations. Some purchasing conflicts can arise (an agency wants to buy software by the drink, while the vendor wants to sell only enterprise license agreements, for example), but these issues typically can be resolved quickly.
Ensuring that contractors get along with their government counterparts, and even one another, is the bigger challenge. It requires a team-oriented approach, particularly when challenges arise. In one instance, HHS hired a systems integrator to provide department-wide IT application services. While Calabrese would not provide specifics, he did say requirements were ill-defined and the initial phase of the rollout failed. His office was left to decide how to proceed.
"We reached a juncture where we could have gotten out a baseball bat and started clipping people, or rolled up our sleeves and said, 'Hey, here's a common objective; let's make it work,' " he says. "We developed absolute synergy with no recrimination. The worst thing to do is pretend you are joined until something goes wrong. Prove on all sides that the relationships are sincere, and once you do, everyone is focused on fixing the problem rather than keeping themselves protected."
Agencies also should find ways to simplify their IT operations. The Transportation Department recently consolidated its infrastructure, culminating in a move to a new building at the Southeast Federal Center in Washington. Much of the complexity was reduced, but challenges persist, particularly those associated with software inherited from various offices. The department's network operation center alone relies on as many as 30 or 35 tools in various states of implementation.
"There's a tendency to get all over the map really quickly," says Byrne Huntley, associate CIO for IT services at Transportation, adding that it's not unusual to see as many as 40 vendors or products involved in a single project. "We have many vendors playing in many places here. I view it as fragmented. I'd like to see more integration-eliminate the complexity by reducing the number of players."
Huntley plans to scale back the tools and integrators that support operations. Transportation functions on a government-owned, contractor-operated model, resulting in an in-house IT staff of 11 and a contract staff of several hundred.
"We are not positioned, from a skills perspective, to manage these kinds of deals," he says. "Federal IT organizations are more often made up of people with deep skills who have had their fingers in the wiring [throughout] their whole careers. We should be talking about developing a robust statement of objectives that [includes] the summary of our needs but stops short of telling contractors how to do things. Then we are managing results and service levels. If there's a panacea, that's it."
That said, no single procurement model works for all agencies or even all projects. Internal resources, desired oversight and technical requirements are among the factors that should influence the structure of any IT contract. A performance-based contracting model that sets project milestones, but leaves the methods largely to the contractor, works for some agencies. Others instead pass risk on to industry by handing over project management, in whole or in part, to the systems integrators. In this scenario, agencies sacrifice a degree of control over systems for the luxury of a single throat to choke.
The Education Department followed a government-owned, contractor-operated, performance-based contracting model until September 2007, when it outsourced its entire IT architecture to Plano, Texas-based Perot Systems under a firm fixed-price contract.
"History showed [the prior model] was tricky to manage," says Education CIO Bill Vajda. If an agency asks a vendor to provide an e-mail system that is 99 percent reliable, for example, and the vendor says a high-end server would be required, the agency is left to justify the investment. "Now we say, 'We'll pay you to have workstations available 99.9 percent of time that comply with guidance and laws, deliver basic Web connectivity, e-mail, disaster recovery and so on, and we'll pay one bundled price.' That's easier to oversee. As technology becomes ubiquitous and as CIO organizations become more strategic . . . about IT, worrying over the specific bundle of products becomes a lot less interesting."
No matter which procurement model an agency chooses, flexibility allows the systems integrator to think outside the box, introducing technologies that best suit the requirements, based on experience and knowledge that might not exist internally. An agency that ties the hands of a contractor contributes to project failure as much as a contractor that overpromises then underdelivers. The risk must be shared.
"If [an agency] says, 'We want you to be creative and transform our infrastructure, but do it with 500 servers and 350 network application devices,' we're limited in what we can do," says Steve Lubniewski, president of Lockheed Martin Enterprise Solutions. "A lot of the new approaches-virtualization and so on-may be able to mitigate the cost of a lot of that hardware. But every situation is unique. We strive to be the honest broker. We don't want technology vendors holding our clients hostage."