Edward Meagher | A modest proposal

Another View | Commentary: Implementing e-gov projects without applying these laws of gravity leads to potluck solutions

Edward Meagher

Watching the ups and downs of e-government during the past seven years has, for me, reinforced two basic beliefs. One is that the laws of gravity are seldom successfully violated, and then only for a very short period of time. Two is that potluck dinners are typically long on casseroles and short on top sirloin.

In the first regard, I am referring to the basics of developing information technology systems. That is: Certain critical processes must be vigorously applied in a certain order if one wishes to align with the best practices we have identified during the last 40 years.

It has been my experience that:
  • Making assumptions about system requirements ' as opposed to researching, documenting, validating and managing them ' always leads to failure.
  • A project must have a skilled, experienced, empowered, fully staffed and funded program management team to succeed.
  • Underestimating the costs, schedules and degree of change a new system will require is the most common mistake, the surest indicator of failure and the simplest thing to correct in almost all system development efforts.

Trying to implement e-government projects without applying these laws of gravity is what leads to potluck solutions. Who makes the best tuna casserole? Let's have the party at their house. I'll bring the salad and you bring the dessert. This is noble in intention but lacking in substance.

The United States deserves the best e-government possible. Within a $70 billion annual IT budget, we should be able to identify and apply the necessary funding, personnel, resources and techniques that will ensure successful design, testing, implementation and operation of governmentwide e-government solutions.

One of the key impediments to greater success in this area has been the lack of coordinated funding. Instead, we have several-dozen uncoordinated budget requests, evaluated by just as many stovepiped authorizing and appropriating committees, managed by a woefully understaffed and overworked executive office. It's no surprise then that we have to resort to pass-the-hat funding, who is available staffing, what-can-we-get-for-this-much requirements definitions and do-the-best-you-can program management.

My proposal is simple. We do not want or need to tackle world hunger to make the system work better.

Start small. Pick four high-impact projects and use them to develop and perfect the process.

Create four full-time, fully staffed, best-of-breed project management teams that are fully funded and empowered.

Apply all the best practices and disciplines we've learned to develop a detailed technical and cost proposal for a governmentwide, secure e-government solution in each of these four areas.

Request that Congress convene a supracommittee to evaluate these proposals.

After normal congressional jurisdictional subcommittee and committee budget deliberations, refer all proposed IT spending to this supracommittee. It would identify duplicative funding, determine whether the projects could satisfy requirements, make determinations on cost-effectiveness and then ' perhaps most importantly ' agree to serve as the oversight committee for these governmentwide efforts.

I am sure the terms naive, simplistic, unrealistic and overreaching may come to mind. However true, that doesn't change the need to find an effective, sustainable way ahead. Never have the words of the great American philosopher Pogo been more true: 'We have met the enemy, and he is us.'

Edward Meagher is deputy chief information officer at the Interior Department. Contact him at edward_meagher@ ios.doi.gov.

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