One step at a time

Thomas R. Temin

If the Iraq war has demonstrated anything, it's that even organizations as big as the U.S. armed services can change in remarkable ways. The agility and lethality of the forces, military analysts are saying, has been dramatic compared with conflicts as recent as the 1991 Gulf War.

This change didn't come about just in the last two years. That is, Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld gets only partial credit. The communications, the precision of the munitions guidance and the use of new doctrines are the result of years of incremental innovations.

Recently, former Rear Adm. John A. Gauss, now CIO at the Veterans Affairs Department, remarked that he had been particularly impressed with advances in the effectiveness of body armor. Seems small compared to smart bombs, until you think of the individual lives not lost or ruined.

This has made me wonder: Has the government also improved at something more mundane, such as deploying information systems on time and within budget? You wouldn't think so, given a sample of recent General Accounting Office or inspector general reports on systems weaknesses at agencies such as the Interior Department, NASA and even DOD itself. These reports sprout up as reliably as Washington's famous cherry blossom trees'and with about as much lasting effect.

Yet I see signs that the government is performing better, and that the improvements will continue. If you take the management and procurement reforms dating back to 1995 and add them up, it's a lot of change'one step at a time.

Few agencies spend years churning out indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts. They often use task orders under existing contracts and blanket purchasing agreements. They are more willing to use commercial software, too.

More important, the Office of Management and Budget has put steady pressure on program managers to justify IT spending via business cases. OMB is pushing for better program management skills. It is requiring architectures so agency IT efforts make sense in total.

These efforts have a long way to go, but it safe to say the government is more efficient at both war and IT than it was a decade ago.

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