THE VIEW FROM INSIDE

Many NPR support mechanisms hit their mark

Walter R Houser



The National Partnership for Reinventing Government, formerly the National Performance Review, has sturdier legs than other information technology reform efforts.

Back in 1993, five proposed infrastructure improvements, dubbed support mechanisms, were handed to the Government IT Services Working Group'now the GITS Board'to implement.

But the new administration was reluctant to undertake costly initiatives in the face of budget deficits and a mandate to trim government. So GITSB was told to lasso existing talent and funding to make these mechanisms succeed.

Results, although notable, reflect this lack of funding.

In my Oct. 4 column I examined the first three mechanisms'covering the government information infrastructure, privacy and security, and IT acquisition.

The fourth supporting mechanism is to provide incentives for innovation. NPR said IT managers ought to be allowed to keep part of the savings on subsequent IT investments. Then and now, if an agency foolishly promises to save $1 million, the Office of Management and Budget takes that amount out of the agency's budget'often before the project is even implemented. The IT project manager may get his funding, but he also earns the enmity of the customer who would have benefited.

Not right now

Congress had not actually enacted this recommendation, so the concept of reinvestment awaits a day when Congress and the administration are on better terms. NPR also suggested multiyear funding to get the government out of its end-of-the-year crisis mode of decision-making. This idea has found more fertile soil; Congress has approved multiyear funding in specific instances.

Single-year funding is intended to keep agencies on a short tether. But over the past few decades, the appropriations process has devolved into a year-end legislative juggernaut.

Few members bother reading the budget in its entirety before voting. This makes the annual appropriation great for pork barrel politics but useless as an oversight tool.

NPR called for the creation of a venture capital fund to support innovative projects, particularly interagency ones. Spun out of the General Services Administration's IT Fund, the Innovation Fund never reached the size of even the smallest Cabinet agency IT budget. Typically, if one agency saw an effort as useful, the others would step back and let that volunteer do the job.

When one agency does all the heavy lifting, it should come as little surprise that the project becomes that agency's project exclusively. In the absence of interagency funding, interagency rivalry trumps cooperation.

The fifth NPR support mechanism was to provide training and technical assistance to federal employees. Citizens are becoming more computer-savvy, and they have more expectations for the delivery of government services.

Well, the Mint is making a mint selling coins online, but most federal agencies face a challenge more difficult than Amazon.com's. Besides, Amazon has yet to make a dime'a situation Congress and the oversight agencies would have little patience for.

Political appointees and senior executives still need to understand the IT investments they evaluate and manage. They need to appreciate the difference between a stand-alone application and an enterprisewide system with strategic ramifications. Basic IT competency should be a requirement for Senior Executive Service candidates. With the pervasive role of computer systems, agencies should establish minimum IT competency skills for IT and non-IT managers.

Most senior managers are reluctant to reveal their ignorance in front of their subordinates. GITSB could make experts or online pals available to such people. Unglamorous though they are, these supporting mechanisms are essential to the success of federal IT. Federal agencies cannot all be as fortunate as the IRS in hiring seasoned, private-sector IT executives.

Although the term NPR may soon pass into history, the next administration will be faced with the same challenges.'The government and the country have been well-served by NPR efforts, incomplete as they may be.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at www.cpcug.org/user/houser/.

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