10 Factors for Successfully Implementing Large Initiatives

Lessons from a recent success story.

Failed initiatives hog the headlines, but successes in government rarely see daylight. However, the federal government recently managed to quietly and successfully implement a key element of the DATA Act: It took a website of financial data from across the government live and nothing bad happened! What lessons were learned that could be applied to other large-scale, governmentwide initiatives in the future? A panel sponsored by the National Academy of Public Administration recently explored this question.

First, some background: The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act was passed in May 2014 and the executive branch was given three years to implement its key provisions. One key deadline was to post federal agency spending data on a single website by May 9, 2017.  

The law requires all federal spending data—including, for the first time, transfers of funds between agencies—to be posted on at least a quarterly basis. That involves more than $3.8 trillion in annual federal spending that the public will able to track from congressional appropriations all the way down to local communities and businesses for the first time. The scale of this initiative was huge and required significant stakeholder engagement, including public transparency and advocacy groups as well as many professional communities within the government.

Implementing the DATA Act successfully looked to be daunting in the beginning.  It was not a popular piece of legislation among executive branch agencies, who were skeptical about its value and because there was little funding to help them implement the legislation.

However, there were some bright spots facing those charged with implementing the law, chiefly that the top leaders responsible in both the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury—David Mader and David Lebryk—were seasoned executives who had previously worked together, and trusted and respected each other.  

The 10 Success Factors

The panelists described 10 factors that they attribute to the initial success of launching the first reporting cycle of the DATA act on May 9, a launch date set in law three years earlier:

  1. A mandate. There were clear legal requirements and timeframes for agencies set in the statute. Having a law in place was critical to making progress and motivating agency compliance.
  1. Experienced leadership. OMB and Treasury are jointly accountable under the law for implementation, and the leadership of both were on the same page. Lebryk (Treasury) and Mader (OMB) knew each other and had previously worked together. This relationship, and their willingness to stick their necks out within their own respective organizations for each other, cascaded down within their teams.
  1. An inspiring vision. The top leaders created a common strategic intent/vision for the overall project—“Better data, better decisions, better government”—that helped guide the effort overall.
  1. A solid business case. Because of agency antipathy to a mandate that was perceived as costly busywork, the leadership of the DATA Act implementation initiative set out to make a business case for why this initiative is important. For example, they created a common sales pitch to agency chief financial officers, explaining how implementation of the law could elevate their role and give them the data needed to better inform decisionmaking.  
  1. A governance structure. The implementation team created a three-part governance structure to ensure effective execution. This included a small executive steering committee, comprised of OMB and Treasury officials; an interagency advisory committee, comprised of representatives of the business and functional communities that have stakes in DATA Act implementation (such as the Chief Financial Officers Council); and senior officials at each agency accountable for certifying the data submitted to Treasury.
  1. A full-time program management office. The leadership team created a program management office in Treasury with staff dedicated to implementing the law. Deputy Assistant Secretary Christina Ho was charged with leading this team. She recruited a mix of talent, including former congressional staff, former staff from the Sunlight Foundation advocacy group, former Recovery Act staff, contractors, and detailees from other agencies and 18F, the internal government digital consulting team. Team members saw themselves as problem-solvers, not process-focused.
  1. External pressure. Several congressional sponsors of the legislation remained actively engaged. The House held hearings and the bipartisan oversight and interest was critical to the success of the project. External advocacy groups, notably the DATA Coalition, provided expertise and public oversight. This external attention was seen as useful. In addition, the law included statutory requirements for GAO and the agency IG to assess progress and the quality of the data. These actions helped focus agency attention.
  1. A robust communications strategy. Individual members of the leadership team and the PMO invested a lot of time and effort in consulting with a wide range of stakeholders, both inside and outside government. For example, the team proactively held regular calls and meetings with external stakeholders, not just meetings with agencies and an online collaboration webpage, an open beta site.
  1. A data-centric approach. Ho put in place an implementation approach that allowed agencies to map the required data from their existing systems and submit the data to Treasury based on a standard format rather than expecting agencies to build new financial systems. This lower-cost approach minimized IT system modifications, which was key to the project’s success and significantly reduced the burden and costs to agencies. Ho sought counsel from the experts at 18F and the U.S. Digital Services to help advise and build support for the data-centric approach.
  1. An open implementation strategy and agile methodology. The key reason Treasury met the deadline, according to panelists, is because it strategically chose to implement an agile development approach, instead of a traditional waterfall development approach, and to leverage existing resources to the greatest extent practicable. Unlike the traditional waterfall approach, which requires defining the requirements up-front, the more incremental agile method allows for making decisions and changes based on evolving circumstances.  

The Treasury PMO team felt the implementation approach it used, based on agile principles, was “revolutionary.” This was the first governmentwide project where the agile approach had been applied, and it took a leap of faith within the government community, along with vision. For example:

  • The PMO team typically did not seek permission to do things. They just did them.
  • Every two weeks, there were new deliverables, then adjustments based on user feedback.
  • The PMO team focused its approach on user-centered design, where they consulted widely and frequently with agencies, the public, and stakeholders.  
  • The PMO team used an open development approach, where the code is open source and anyone can look at it and offer tweaks.

The law included significant amount of oversight requirements during the implementation phase (which was not common in other governmentwide laws). This caused agencies to better document what they were doing. For example, there were over a dozen GAO progress audits during the implementation. Because the project used agile techniques, the Treasury PMO team was able to pivot quickly to respond to recommendations from both GAO and agency inspectors general.

Within the IG community, the Treasury IG took the lead, in concert with the cross-agency Council of the Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency. The IG community had to learn Agile methodology, develop their own guides and conduct training so there wouldn’t be different IG interpretations of progress across agencies.

While there has been a significant amount of progress, it wasn’t easy. The door opened on May 9 for the public’s new view and use of federal spending data, but there is more to do between now and 2022, according to a report for the DATA Foundation, when the Act is to be fully implemented.