Another View: Good decision-making needs good IT

Mark Forman, former Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and IT

The purported intelligence failures regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are stark reminders of the role IT has'or should have'in fixing longstanding government problems.

Public policy decisions are made on information. The graver the decision, the greater the dependency on high-quality information.

In nearly every major failure that comes to mind, the problem has not been lack of raw data but rather a lack of solid, reliable information getting to the people who need it, when they need it.

The result too often has been measured in loss of life and livelihood. Now, we see, it can have political ramifications.

The lessons learned from the reviews of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks follow a similar pattern'data not making the transition to actionable information. The government collects overwhelming amounts of data, all stored in silo information systems from which it must be extracted and analyzed.

By the time various agencies interpret their version of the data, different views appear. The process consumes a lot of energy as agencies jockey for the decision-makers' attention.

True to form, the Iraq intelligence investigation will find a need for a new IT system, almost surely another database, owned by yet another group that jockeys for attention. All the while, the data won't change, and the decision-makers will be awash in data but with no better ability to make an informed decision.

Much high-quality information makes its way to the White House every day. But, especially on controversial issues, people in many organizations filter information to reflect their belief.

Too often, the more valuable the information or the greater its need for a decision, the lower its quality by the time it reaches the White House. Rarely is the problem lack of data; too often the data is not what's needed or arrives too late.

Government officials have learned important lessons from Sept. 11 reviews:
  • Decisions must be made faster, and more rapidly communicated to those who need to know.

  • Having more people collect more data does not guarantee better decisions.

  • Government's ability to respond can only be improved by pushing more decisions and information to people in the field. Leadership must more clearly articulate the roles, authorities and responsibilities of their workers. How they interact in a business process is as important as what data is stored in a database.

  • IT and program managers must optimize their projects to ensure that decision-makers get essential information when they need it.

Nearly all growth in IT spending in fiscal 2003 and 2004 was focused on addressing these issues for homeland security and the war on terrorism. Many of those projects are bearing fruit, while others remain on OMB's watch list of risky IT projects.
I know firsthand the pressure for moving forward on politically desirable but failing projects. Since these projects are crucial to the nation, any administration official, congressional overseer or contractor involved in the project review chain must make sure that two basic questions are addressed:
  • What is the measure of success and the improvement in that measure?

  • Is there a clear link between the IT project and someone making a faster or better decision?

Mark Forman, former Office of Management and Budget administrator for e-government and IT, is executive vice president at Cassatt Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif.

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