Robert Holleyman

COMMENTARY

Private sector lessons in modernizing government

As part of his initiative to modernize government, President Barack Obama recently gathered leading chief executives from some of America’s greatest companies, including many from the technology industry. The meetings were the opening salvo in an effort by the president and his administration to learn lessons from the private sector about how best to harness the full power of technology with the goal of increasing efficiency and improving customer service for 300 million citizens.

Over the past 20 years, businesses large and small have utilized technology to increase productivity and profitability, all while improving customer access to information on a global scale. The CEOs attending the White House Forum on Modernizing Government, including Sybase’s John Chen, Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer and Rosetta Stone’s Tom Adams, shared some essential principles and private sector practices that can help guide the government’s efforts moving forward.
 
First, they said, the administration should not try to solve everything at once. There are many examples of failed attempts to overhaul massive government systems in one pass — Social Security and IRS were cited as examples in the meeting. Enormous and complicated legacy challenges cannot be conquered in single effort. Instead, they said, it would be better if the government divided these challenges into smaller, more manageable components with durations of no more than 18 months. These “beacon projects,” which must include clear objectives and accountable leadership, would serve as models for later development. Working on smaller projects would also allow additional user feedback, which, the CEO’s recommended, should be solicited throughout.

With a strategy of one piece at a time, maintaining interoperability would be critical.  As in the private sector, federal government decisions on technology should be based on the objective factors of performance, quality, security, and life-cycle cost.  By maintaining a policy of technology choice and tackling big problems in small steps, President Obama can ensure individual departments are able to choose the most appropriate, secure and cost effective technology solutions. There is no one-size-fits-all answer, the executives emphasized. 

CEOs also stressed that many solutions already exist. Off the shelf technology is available, and frequently can reduce complexity. Looking to take advantage of existing technology – rather than creating new systems from scratch – will increase the speed of implementation and the reliability of new government systems.

Citizen privacy and security of customer data are both essential as well. Any effort is doomed to fail in the eyes of the American people if they do not feel their information — whether it is related to their health, taxes or benefits — is well-protected.

Finally, the CEOs urged other government administrators to take advantage of the fact that President Obama has shown a keen interest in improving government efficiency through technology. This administration has already achieved important milestones, including appointing the United States’ first-ever chief information and chief technology officers. The administration has also underscored its commitment to spurring innovation through competition and transparency through its Innovation Agenda and its March 4th memorandum regarding government contracting. The CEOs made clear that President Obama’s commitment and leadership must be harnessed to continue to build crucial momentum.

In addition, the president’s legislative priorities in healthcare, energy, and financial reform will each require new information technology infrastructure to interact with citizens and businesses. By following these and other lessons from the private sector, the federal government can maximize its results and spur the marketplace to produce more competitive, efficient, and innovative technology products and services, which will in turn drive economic growth and help to spur U.S. job creation.

What is next?  Look for the Obama administration to score some quick technology wins using the private sector roadmap, with manageable scale, customer need, interoperability and security as some of the primary checkpoints along the way.

 

 

Reader Comments

Mon, Jan 25, 2010 William Errico

It's great to see ongoing coverage about this important meeting and the lessons learned. In the rush to embrace new technologies we can’t overlook the opportunity to analyze existing environments, test to validate progress, and reuse (where appropriate) proven IT resources. Legacy applications that remain viable within an agency, including COBOL applications, don’t have to be a hindrance to progress. They can be an accelerator.

Instead of rewriting or replacing legacy applications, which can be risky, expensive, and time-consuming, modernizing applications can help government tackle large IT projects by breaking them down into smaller, digestible rollouts. With the proper upfront analysis and testing, agencies can literally pick and choose which applications they want to modernize to leverage new technologies like cloud computing. Because application modernization preserves legacy code and business rules, the applications remain unchanged, preserving their inherent value, avoiding interoperability risks, and cutting costs in the here-and-now.

-William Errico, Micro Focus

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