Treasury Managers Stress Teamwork in Major Information Technology Upgrade

Cloud services award will come Wednesday amid Trump budget uncertainty.

For more than a year, key officials at the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service have been venturing out of office silos to meet and assemble requirements for a departmentwide upgrade of personnel data systems.

On Tuesday, the day before the scheduled announcement of the award, five of them shared lessons in risk-taking and teamwork from undertaking acquisition of what is called the Integrated Talent Management Solution, which will replace 24 legacy computer systems housing employee and job candidate data with a more uniform cloud-based one. 

“With the budget cuts and the hiring freeze and looking for efficiencies, this was perfect timing,” said Carole Banks, Treasury’s acting deputy chief financial officer, speaking at the American Council for Technology—Industry Advisory Council’s 2017 acquisition conference  with the theme “Acquisition is a Team Sport.”

Coming just as her department was working with the Office of Management Budget on “passbacks” for the next budget, there was “panic,” Banks said. But the potential for “huge cost savings made it easier to sell why it’s important to make this transition.”

Shanna Webbers, bureau chief procurement officer for the Internal Revenue Service -- which, as Treasury’s largest component, drove much of the solicitation -- said, “The IRS tends to be risk-averse. So we were very deliberative with the staff.” Even with a new contracting officer, regular meetings got out the message that “it’s okay for us to try something new, and we’re going to take this risk.”

As the June 14 date for the award drew near, Webbers added, IRS staff realized that “we may not have the money, so as a group we re-looked at cost structure and allowed for flexibility” in an uncertain budget.

In the discussion moderated by Kevin Youel Page, the departing deputy commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration, a clear theme emerged: the need for regular communication among the department’s leaders in human resources, information technology, budget and acquisition.

“To put all of human resources in one database is a team sport, and we knew we needed help through the acquisition process,” said Anita Blair, Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for human resources and chief human capital officer. The 2014 Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act “enabled me to go to [Chief Information Officer Sonny Bhagowalia] and say, ‘You have absolute power over IT systems, and I’m a customer.’ ” And acting deputy chief financial officer Banks “had the money,” Blair noted. It also helped move the contract preparation along, she added, when the deputy IRS commissioner came to a meeting and said, “This will be beneficial to all employees.”

Iris Cooper, Treasury’s senior procurement executive, said it was important that the department held a status meeting every other week, even if only for 15 minutes. “Everyone had an equal voice in the requirements gathering,” during which the project manager got the requirements down from more than 1,000 to 400, she said. “And we let the contracting officer know that we had his back.”

Another challenge, Cooper said, was “overcoming a culture of endless reviews, where everything takes two years, to try something new.” One of the reasons for the good staff buy-in, she added, was that all parties had “been part of the discussion from Day 1.”

Bhagowalia, Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for information systems and chief information officer, said he had thought “the first CXO meeting would be accolades and rose petals. 

But soon other vegetables were thrown,” he joked, saying eventually the sessions “turned into a love fest.” Having the chief officers from all the disciplines -- “team governance,” he called it -- showed “why commitment from leadership is so important.” It provided “consistent messages from all bureaus,” Bhagowalia added, though the communication “was a two-way street.”       

If the contractor working with Treasury’s program managers succeeds in such challenges as managing life-cycle costs, he said, the project “becomes a bellwether for other systems.”