Assembling a business case

OMB-compliant budgeting requires more than filing the right forms. Software tools provide the data and analysis to justify, plan and execute IT investments

In recent years, several government performance initiatives, including the President's Management Agenda, have focused on IT as both a means to an end and a cost center that must be brought under control.

The need for savings is clear. 'IT expenditures at the federal level alone are $65 billion,' says Carl DeMaio, president and founder of the Performance Institute, a think tank that promotes performance-based management practices in government. 'That is the third-largest program that is run by the federal government.'

To better match government performance with IT investments, the Office of Management and Budget, in its Circular A-11, issued copious requirements that agencies must meet before getting OMB approval for budget requests. Of late, the parts of Circular A-11 getting the most attention are its Exhibits 300 and 53, which prescribe how agencies shall justify a business case for the funding requests.

'The agencies have had OMB 300 on the brain,' says David Hurwitz, chief marketing officer of Niku Corp., which makes portfolio management software. 'It's necessary, but not enough, to automate your business case process.'

The push for solid business cases meshes neatly with other federal IT initiatives such as the federal enterprise architecture, which is meant to encourage resource sharing. 'OMB is interested in looking across business lines to see if there's duplication,' said Caine O'Brien, vice president of marketing at ProSight Inc., another portfolio management software vendor. 'They're looking to classify taxonomically where each of these investments fit.'

Integrate budget, performance

Other federal mandates, such as the Government Performance and Results Act, seek to ensure that agencies follow up with results. 'The big thing the federal government cares about is integrating budget and performance,' says Robert Clay, vice president of marketing at CorVu Corp. 'They want to make sure that all of the resources of the agency are aligned with the mission of the agency.'

Exhibit 300 is for federal agencies, but vendors report that some state and local governments are starting to follow the OMB format to build business cases in grant requests to federal agencies, especially the Homeland Security Department. But state and local governments are far more likely to use business case tools to support their own, ongoing efforts to justify IT investments and better align them to their business needs.

One local government that has begun to transform its business is Sarasota County, Fla. According to county CIO Bob Hanson, the county purchased Pilot Software's PilotWorks to add an easy-to-use graphical front-end and performance management capabilities to GovMax, a budgeting program it had developed in-house. Hanson says the combination has allowed Sarasota County to enhance cross-departmental collaboration and avoid wasteful duplication.

'Now we tend to look at tools and people and equipment without regard to the department they're in,' Hanson says.

The hybrid tool, now called PilotWorks for GovMax and sold as a Web-hosted application to other organizations, is also helping the county to work beyond its borders. For example, the county is sharing IT resources with a local school board. Hanson says he hopes to use the software to expand citizen participation and improve the county's operational efficiency.

Business case support, whether geared to OMB 300 or intended for more generic use, is a feature, not a product. Thus, you can get it in several kinds of software that you'll probably buy primarily for another purpose.

Portfolio management software is arguably the most important, and it's certainly the most logical complement to both the letter and the spirit of business case requirements. These expensive, powerful, enterprise-class programs from Metier, Niku, Pacific Edge, ProSight and several others are designed for planning and managing projects as if they were an investment portfolio. They provide high-level dashboard views that show at a glance which areas are over budget or behind schedule, as well as collaborative portals that enable group decision-making on business plans. Portfolio management is almost an ideal way not only to collect the data needed for the business case, but also to track the IT projects that receive funding to ensure they meet the stated objectives.

Performance management

Another significant and closely related category is so-called performance management software from companies such as Pilot Software and CorVu Corp. These companies at- tempt to link strategic planning to operations by placing tools for budgeting, financial management and forecasting under the same umbrella as scorecards, dashboards, business intelligence and other mechanisms for measuring the progress of initiatives. Meanwhile, a third group, BI vendors that include Business Objects, Cognos Corp. and Hyperion Solutions Corp., offer a similar mix of features, albeit with a BI slant.

This guide also has a smattering of products that provide more limited business case features, such as Casewise Systems' IT Architecture Accelerator, a software design tool with built-in FEA support, and the Case Builder series from BusinessCase.com, low-end software with basic guidelines and business case presentation support. Finally, a small number of free tools are available solely to prepare and submit Exhibit 300 documentation in the Extensible Markup Language data format required by OMB.

Whatever your agency needs, there is likely a tool to help address them.

David Essex is a freelance writer in An- trim, N.H.

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