The Office of Management and Budget will this month complete a 120-day review of the federal government’s long-troubled information technology procurement and management practices. The Center for American Progress, in support of that important effort, held an interactive brainstorming session in July with IT professionals at its Doing What Works conference in Washington. This column summarizes and develops one of promising ideas that emerged in that “DeepDive” session.
The federal government has missed the technology-fueled productivity boom that in recent decades transformed the private sector, and Washington “now lags far behind on efficiency and service quality,” said former Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orszag in a June announcement. “We are wasting billions of dollars a year, and more importantly are missing out on the huge productivity improvements other sectors have benefited from,” Orszag added before announcing a 120-day review of Washington’s overall IT procurement and management practices.
The recommendations that emerge from that review at the end of this month will likely focus on improving project management systems. But the government should also focus on overcoming communication barriers that stymie effective IT procurement and management. We propose that OMB create a virtual IT-focused “community of practice” across government that shares a common “cloud” based data system. By connecting IT experts across government the community can reduce unnecessary duplication of effort, yield immediate cost savings, and allow managers to rapidly identify and terminate unneeded IT programs.
Over the past decade large government information technology projects have hemorrhaged billions of dollars from the federal budget because of costly delays, frequent changes in scope, and unsatisfactory deliverables.
Investment Review Boards, the federal teams that evaluate and approve government IT projects—and are therefore supposed to prevent such problems—are isolated within agencies. There is limited cross-agency collaboration and little incentive to develop it. Review boards have the authority to terminate problem IT projects, but they only meet a few times a year (in some cases biannually). And they rarely communicate with counterparts at other agencies who may have already developed solutions to a given problem.
The IT investments that review boards approve and monitor are typically led by Integrated Product Teams. These teams are responsible for a program’s life cycle: defining requirements, design, development, implementation, testing, and live operation. Like review boards, product teams are also often isolated in an agency silo. Technology managers often don’t know, for example, whether they are re-creating IT solutions that have already been designed and implemented in other agencies.
OMB has already taken significant steps to identify problems in the federal procurement and management of information technology. Notable examples are the development of the Federal IT Dashboard, which publicly tracks IT spending and performance, and through TechStat sessions for troubled IT procurements. But the agency still needs a better way to identify troubled projects early before they require a TechStat intervention—and when significant cost savings are most likely.
The government also needs a better way to discover the drivers of success in thriving programs along with identifying and perhaps terminating faltering IT programs.
We propose that OMB develop an IT-focused “community of practice” on the new FedSpace social networking platform. FedSpace, currently in pilot phase, is a social intranet that will “enable government employees to work collaboratively across agencies, through the use of Web 2.0 technologies like file sharing, wikis, a government-wide employee directory, shared workspaces, blogs, and more,” according to usa.gov.
OMB can use FedSpace to collect data in a more open manner in addition to facilitating collaboration among IT practitioners. Today, OMB gathers information on IT investments through its MAX Information System, an online portal the agency uses to collect, analyze, and publish governmentwide management and budgeting activities.
We suggest that OMB build an application allowing MAX to collect IT data directly from FedSpace. Authorized contractors, program managers, technical staff, and end users should be able to use FedSpace to upload program milestones and other OMB-required data, such as program metrics and Exhibit 53 and 300 submissions. There should be a single-sign-on capability between FedSpace and MAX that enables authorized users to perform data-gathering functions without leaving FedSpace.
Letting IT professionals fulfill MAX-related requirements through FedSpace will encourage the sharing of project information with the entire federal community.
OMB MAX is already a virtual community of some 30,000 current users, but we believe that the overlapping OMB MAX and FedSpace communities will benefit one another. And in addition to FedSpace, a growing body of cloud-sourced databases is useful to federal IT managers, such as the Do Not Pay list or the Defense Acquisition University Best Practices Guide. These databases should also be integrated into the IT “community of practice” on FedSpace so that connections can be made and knowledge aggregated.
Among the other advantages OMB can reap by integrating its IT management functions with FedSpace:
- Better sourcing of commercially available and open-source solutions. One of the easiest ways to reduce risk in information technology development is to reuse existing, proven solutions. Review board members in a virtual community of practice are more likely to learn about commercial off-the-shelf or open-source solutions that can meet the government’s requirements, which obviates the need to start costly new programs. Project teams can customize existing source code rather than develop an entire project from scratch in the case of open-source software.
- Natural indexing and organic expert-systems. OMB currently tracks about 7,000 information technology projects. The social networking features of a virtual community will make it easier for practitioners to navigate such a complex and massive set of data. Reviewers can use FedSpace tools to track progress on certain projects. Experts can build credibility by contributing to a database of knowledge. Practitioners can post problems and share solutions on forums. People can collaborate on documents using wikis or websites that are jointly edited by multiple users. In addition to being permanently archived and keyword-searchable the community builds its own natural index system through tagging, cross-linking, and rating. And it rewards its most helpful members by validating their reputations as innovative problem-solvers, rewarding them for results and not for protecting their turf and building mini-empires.
- The community becomes its own early warning system. In FedSpace, review boards and project teams will have access to real-time information on ongoing IT projects, making it easier to identify problems early and prevent redundant work across government. Review boards can look for best practices on FedSpace before investing in a new program, for example.
To be sure, the creation of a “community of practice” described above is itself an information technology project that will require effective procurement and management oversight. OMB managers should therefore carefully assess the costs and time required before committing to a major integration with FedSpace or any other social networking environment lest an initiative designed to reduce IT-related waste become an example of the problem it is trying to solve.
Will Thomas is the Director of Information Technology and Pratap Chatterjee is a visiting Senior Fellow at American Progress.