Feds Seek Tech Advice from Private Industry

Ann All

About two months ago I wrote about federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffery Zients' contention that government "has missed out" on IT-driven productivity gains and service improvements enjoyed by private-sector companies over the past decade.

 

I also noted that several federal agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget and the Veterans Affairs Department, were asking their employees to contribute ideas for improvement and actually acting upon some of those ideas. I wrote:

Certainly that's a start, though much heavy lifting likely will be required to turn these ideas into reality. The article doesn't say how the feds are collecting and vetting ideas, but I wonder if social tools are playing a role? Perhaps the feds need something like Dell's IdeaStorm for government. Heck, let the constituents in on it, too.

Before going to their constituents, the feds decided to speak to Southwest Airlines and other companies known for their savvy use of technology. As PCWorld.com reports, Obama administration officials met representatives from more than 50 companies during yesterday's summit event. Echoing Zients' thoughts, Obama said federal employees were expected to work with outmoded technology, which hampered their efforts to serve the public. For instance, he said, some government agencies still don't have internal files online, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office prints out hard copies of electronic patent applications so they can be scanned and into entered into an old case-management system.

 

Members of IT Business Edge's editorial staff have spotlighted several examples of outdated government IT. In 2008, for instance, Carl Weinschenk discussed federal emergency communications systems, citing an article that pointed out U.S. Park Police communicate using a phone system that is more than 20 years old, U.S. Capitol Police routinely suffer communications "dead spots" and have trouble interconnecting with local police, and 84 percent of FBI radios are obsolete.

 

For what it's worth, it sounds like the feds got some good advice. Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello said government IT projects should have "extremely narrow" defined purposes, with project managers discouraging features or functionality that go beyond those purposes, but ensuring the underlying technology allows new features to be implemented later. I think government needs to emulate companies like Google and Apple, which succeed by making complicated technology seem simple to the average user.



Technology isn't the only problem, of course. Poor management and a lack of communication between IT managers and agency leadership play a role as well, said Zients in testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs earlier this year. (Much as they do at private-sector companies, I'll add.) He said:

This is a management issue more than a technology issue It comes down to having the right people, sharing best practices, and ensuring program management processes are robust. Making sure the CIO has a seat at the management table as a senior executive is extremely important.

Those issues were addressed at the summit too, judging by Washington Post coverage. Because he government is "extraordinarily constrained" in its ability to offer raises or fire poor performers, there is a lack of accountability among federal employees, said Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel B. Poneman. Bill McComb of the Liz Claiborne Co. suggested government departments that save taxpayer money should see those funds go into "a bonus pool."

 

Some folks seem to think the government is too quick to blame technology for its problems. Wrote one commenter on the Post story:

Federal employees, stop whining for new toys! I work at an elite corporate law boutique in New York, and we still have XP and Office 2003, as do most of the people I interact with. (It is rare for me ever to receive an Office 2007 document.) Many IP administrators, including ours, were reluctant to deploy Vista and didn't think 2007 added much, so that's where much of the private sector has stayed. And to think I'd been wishing I could get a Federal job merely because it would pay more (without even counting benefits) and be 100 percent more stable than working at a law firm. Now I see that I'd probably get a better tricked-out computer, too.

The age and relative inability of core transactional processing systems and other foundational technologies presented far greater challenges than outdated desktop hardware and software, another commenter pointed out. (And rightly so.) Shortcomings in these kinds of technologies are likely what has created a growing government interest in cloud computing.

 

While these kinds of forums are a good step, they obviously won't solve the government's technology ills. Still, government officials who attended the event promised to keep in close contact with their private-sector counterparts, and the feds plan to launch a Web site to collect the public's ideas for improvements, both of which seem like promising developments.

 

Some agencies are already tackling problems. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, is using a new vetting process called the Program Management Accountability System (PMAS). As I wrote last month, the VA in July temporarily halted 45 IT projects that were behind schedule and/or over budget, then later decided to kill a dozen of those projects. Under PMAS guidelines, projects are halted following the third missed customer-delivery milestone. At that point, a process kicks in that includes re-assessment of the need for a project, the program approach and all associated service contracts.



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