Looking on The Bright Side

A perfect world of federalwide enterprise architecture is alluring but elusive.

Underneath enterprise architecture there lurks what is no small assumption: Acquisitive behavior isn't innate-it's surmountable through careful planning, say enterprise architects. Redundancy in information technology is rife across government, architects note. Focus people on gaining the IT functions they need and they will give up their drive to accumulate resources. Service level agreements will guarantee the same service-or better-for cheaper prices, technocrats say.

These infrastructure consolidators recognize that somewhere an enforcer must prowl-in this case, the Office of Management and Budget. And in a perfectly planned world, that would be that. Managers would cooperate to vanquish redundancy by allowing enterprise architects to map what an agency does, which IT systems it needs and how processes can be streamlined. Those highly enough placed would spot cross-agency areas of duplication to zap. OMB would derail any attempts to stray from this course. Agency blueprints would mesh seamlessly with federalwide architecture, rationalizing all infrastructure in perfect alignment.

Even the snake in this paradise would be appeased. Congress, because it appropriates money for individual programs, is suspicious of attempts to consolidate back-office systems across departments. But superior results and the government's ability to document resource allocation and satisfy reporting requirements would quiet congressional concerns. And everyone would live happily ever after with reusable IT components administered by a cooperative governance structure.

Enter reality. Enterprise architects want their approach adopted as a ubiquitous management tool, but they've laden it with complexity and jargon. Managers from the business side of agencies pigeonhole it as an IT-only tool or mistrust it as a power grab by the back office.

And Congress is not amused. "Consolidation of multiple agencies into a one-system-fits-all model often leads to development of systems that fail to adequately address unique and mission-critical aspects of individual agencies," seethes a report that accompanied a Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies fiscal 2007 appropriations bill, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Enterprise architects defend efforts such as OMB's lines of business initiatives, saying they concentrate only on areas where IT has become fungible. "You begin to scrape it away, you find that 10 percent is special and 90 percent is common," said Dick Burk, head of OMB's federal enterprise architecture program management office, to an industry audience on July 13.

Burk was touting a new OMB effort to catalog all cross-agency IT projects. A single source would allow agencies to better incorporate them into their environments, he said. OMB does not expect agencies to hand back savings gained through centralization, Burk argued. If some IT functions lend themselves to commodization, then agencies should consolidate them and "become excellent in the things that Congress wants you to be excellent in," he said.

Burk, who spent most of his career at the Housing and Urban Development Department, used that agency as an example, saying it doesn't need to run its own human resources IT system. "None of us were sent into government to do that," he said.

Rather than share architects' optimism, congressional staffers tend to view these efforts darkly. "Consolidation, when taken too far as an objective, can become an excuse to usurp decision-making from agencies," the Senate report continues.

In seeking to rewire the administrative workings of government, OMB has undertaken a larger project than lawmakers are willing to stomach, some observers say. OMB officials say the 2002 E-Government Act and the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act give them the authority. "Clinger-Cohen makes it very clear that OMB has to take on the role of identifying those leverage points," says Mark Forman, former OMB administrator for e-government and IT, now a KPMG LLP partner.

"The whole concept of doing enterprise architecture on a governmentwide basis implies doing things differently," says Randy Hite, Government Accountability Office director of information technology architecture. That includes Congress. But supporters might be forgetting that change doesn't just happen, it must be sold to the entities it affects. That includes the appropriations committees. Hite says OMB has talked of gaining congressional support, but mostly with authorization committees, not the purse string holders who fund the systems that would be consolidated.

Forman casts this latest round of congressional upset in a positive light, saying discussion is good. The fact that Congress is asking tough questions can create opportunities because, he says, "at the end of the day, rational minds prevail."

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