Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Several recent reports recommend ways to improve performance in US Government information technology (IT) programs. These recommendations focus on how agencies buy and oversee IT from companies. A key recommendation? Bite-sized chunks are better, and inde

As previously blogged in this space, one of the most prominent of these studies came from the TechAmerica Foundation, entitled “Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century.”  A key commission recommendation is to expand the use of rapid, smaller steps to increase the agility in acquisition and program execution.  This helps make IT results earlier and more efficient.  It also helps identify and manage risk throughout the lifecycle of an IT project.  This can help make IT more effective.

The People Side of Delivery. These measures recommended by the TechAmerica Commission are part of a larger set of study areas that also includes reinventing the people side of IT delivery, through better program management and more communication and openness (more on the people side in a future blog).  If the focus were only on agility, risk could increase as attention is paid to speed and oversight is reduced; if the focus were only on risk reduction, achieving quick wins as part of would be very difficult in the face of overly cumbersome processes for program integrity.

Prior Studies Tended to Focus on Pieces, Not the Whole.  GTO 21 includes an appendix that summarizes the many similar studies on this and related subjects over the past 20 years.  Many of these earlier efforts studies raised useful ideas, and their recommendations were taken up under several Administrations – yet under-performance and budget overruns continue to affect too many large IT programs.  Part of the issue has been that prior reports often focused on one particular area for reform, where policies may have fixed a part of the problem but not enough to make a longer-term difference.  GTO21 links its focus across key areas that matter for IT performance – the linking of agility and risk reduction is one example.

Bite-Sized Chunks Are Better.  Specifically, the report recommends that development and execution be done in manageable, measureable, modular steps, each of which can be assessed by performance metrics.  Such steps should be implemented through:

  • budget process incentives– where funds are released consistent with upcoming releases, not all at once;
  • contract incentives– where agencies set out performance objectives for contracted firms and increase their use of appropriate positive and negative rewards based on whether those firms exceed, meet, or miss the objectives; and
  • personnel incentives – where government and industry program managers are assessed based on their performance against a similar set of objectives.

Reinvent the Independent Review.  At the same time, IT programs can go off the rails at any point, and thus need a check and balance as agencies move to make them fast and cheaper.  The recommendation for reinventing independent review falls into this category – rather than have the program staff overly focus on compliance and review, a third party can lead this activity.  The key to success here is that the third party works best as a partner along the way, helping with requirements definition, contract review, and similar activities across the lifecycle; traditional independent validation and verification review often becomes an after the fact “gotcha” exercise.

What About the People Side?  Which leads us to the importance of people and communication – stay tuned to this space.