THE VIEW FROM INSIDE

Nine rules that give an expert's insights on projects

Walter R. Houser

It's always refreshing to hear from Marty Wagner. The associate administrator for governmentwide policy at the General Services Administration shared his rules for federal information technology projects during the Interagency Resources Management Council conference in Williamsburg, Va., earlier this month.

Wagner's rules, he said, are guideposts that he continually revises.

Wagner's perspective draws on his long federal career. He knows what works and what does not. These rules'delivered with his usual dry wit'are worth consideration by the current crop of chief information officers as well as those arriving with the new administration.

Rule 1: 'Tie yourself to something larger than yourself.' Wagner advises looking beyond your local program office objectives to the larger federal, state and even private IT communities. No matter how unique you think you are, somebody else is probably trying something similar. You'll find lots of useful opportunities for teaming.

'Move incrementally against a plan' is Rule 2. It reminds me of one of author Stephen Covey's admonitions: Think big and act small. Wagner recommends delivering concrete pieces of progress every three months. Don't promise a finished system three years from now. The rapid changes in IT will render even the best plan obsolete before you ever implement it.

To this rule Wagner adds, 'Be prepared to change every three to six months as you learn and find better tools.'

Rule 3 is 'Streamline business processes.' Many government business practices are labor-intensive. Sometimes a program office cannot explain its processes except to say: 'We've always done it this way.'

Simple for software

Software is the tangible representation of policy. Complex or confusing policy makes expensive and risky software.

'Rely on commercial practices, commercial solutions and open standards,' is Wag-ner's Rule 4. Custom applications are typically costly, late and unreliable'luxuries few agencies can afford. In the commercial world, poor products quickly disappear. Open standards allow more efficient suppliers to step in and put things right.

In Rule 5, Wagner suggests, 'Use smaller awards, multiple sources and existing contract vehicles.' Small awards support the rule on incremental movement. Grand design contracts encourage requirements creep and contractor complacency. Multiple sources keep competition alive even after you award a contract.

Using existing contract vehicles puts the emphasis on the product rather than the procurement.

'Form partnerships and use interagency groups' is Rule 6. Agencies often hedge their bets by clouding initiatives in fuzzy platitudes. Candor is often rewarded with sharp criticism from the losers and wan support from the beneficiaries. But links with federal and commercial entities broaden the political and financial backing that change requires.

Rule 7: 'Conserve your IT talent.' Wag-ner decries what he calls mindless contracting out. He warns agencies to retain technically savvy staff to understand what they are buying. Program managers need IT talent to articulate technical requirements and oversee contractor performance.

Yet early outs, retirements and the lure of the private sector have shriveled the roster of federal IT professionals. Our ranks are thinning just when agencies need fresh ideas to improve productivity and meet the demand for online government.

'Own just the data and processes needed,' Wagner says in Rule 8. Hardware and software are inert. Lose control over the data and processes, and you lose control of your agency mission and programs.

Wagner's final rule: 'Always tie investment dollars to the business case.' A weak or nonexistent business case exposes your funding to the lean and hungry accountants and auditors ready to pounce on the unfit and unwary. A solid business case is particularly valuable during requirements and design phases when the temptation for feature bloat is strongest. It is easy to be distracted if you do not have a clear vision of what you are doing and why.

Marty's rules ring true to me. It's gratifying to hear good common sense coming down from such a lofty precipice.

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

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