Cautionary Tales from Government IT Efforts

Allan Holmes’ article, “Federal IT Flunks Out” on CIO.com tells the sobering and ultimately frustrating story of where tons of money and effort have been squandered in federal government IT projects over the past ten years. The focus is on the role of CIOs in government agencies.
The article also discusses the law that was passed to avoid this very result.

The Clinger-Cohen Act, passed in a rare act of bipartisanship 10 years ago, outlined steps that were designed to cast federal CIOs in the role of strategists who could help agencies formulate new business processes to streamline operations, improve the delivery of public services and reduce the risk of system disasters that test citizens’ faith in government—and, from time to time, put their lives in danger. Officially known as the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996 (and later renamed the Clinger-Cohen Act after Rep. William Clinger and Sen. William Cohen, who pushed the legislation through), the law demanded that federal agencies follow corporate America’s best practices for managing IT. Agencies were required to hire a CIO, institute investment controls and establish performance goals and metrics to measure progress. The law was hailed as the tool that would finally fix federal IT.

As the article points out, the Act is another example of how legislation on technology issues never quite seems to get the job done (CAN-SPAM anyone?) even with the best of intentions. Paul Brubaker, one of the lead authors of the law when he worked as a Republican staff director for Cohen, has said, “We really thought we had it nailed. . . . We were going to change the way government managed IT and in doing so, possibly change government. . . . The Clinger-Cohen Act was totally bastardized to fit political agendas in both [the Clinton and first Bush] administrations, missing the point of making the CIO a strategic player in an agency rather than just the technology go-to guy. . . . We have the same basic problems we did 10 years ago.””
I highlight and recommend this article not just as another infuriating example of “your tax dollars at work” (or the frightening security threats we continue to face because of these practices), but as a cautionary tale that you will want to consider as you look at your own IT projects and the role that your CIO (or you as a CIO) plays in yor organization’s success.
Holmes, through a series of many interviews notes four key factors that have led to the problems:
1. The CIO’s lack of authority, specifically over budgets.
2. Cultural and political resistance that derails sound IT practices.
3. Poor project management discipline.
4. Paperwork exercises that require CIOs and their staffs to spend huge amounts of time proving that they are adhering to administration directives.

Sound familar?
As Holmes notes, the solution lies in leadership.
The money quote:

John Flaherty, chief of staff for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, stood up to say a few words about [retiring Department of Transportation CIO] Matthews’ accomplishments, pointing out that Matthews was always quick to help Mineta when his BlackBerry wasn’t working.
Flaherty wasn’t kidding.
A number of people present saw Flaherty’s comment as a perfect illustration of why IT at the federal level is so troubled. Government CIOs are still seen as guys who fix BlackBerrys.

Important topic – great article – highly recommended.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
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