Four commandments for IT investment

Ira Hobbs

With the rapid pace of change in technology, federal information technology and program managers face big challenges in making sound investments in IT resources. The Information Technology Management Reform Act and other legislation require agencies to make investments that align with their missions and business needs.

How do we increase our chances of success in IT procurement? Those of us at the Agriculture Department live under four investment commandments that help us enable our agencies to accomplish their work more efficiently and effectively.

So whether you are a manager grappling with your own IT portfolio, or a potential private-sector partner trying to understand some of what matters to an agency such as USDA, let me share with you our four principal commandments:

  • Re-engineer business processes before starting an investment. Nothing can be worse than investing millions of dollars to simply upgrade existing ways of doing business without adequately considering more efficient business models.

  • Especially as we implement electronic government, my department will get the most out of these investments only if we rethink not only what we do, but also how we do it. It will help immensely if your rethinking is from the perspective of your customers.

  • Know the final security and privacy requirements before you build.

  • Security and privacy considerations must be top priorities when it comes to IT investments. Money spent on insecure applications, networks or systems is wasted money. It is easier to build security and privacy into the plan up front than to figure out how to make provisions for them later. You face lower costs and a higher likelihood of success.

    Get the approval of an executive investment review board before proceeding. At USDA, we have established an Executive Information Technology Investment Review Board to review all major IT investments: those with lifecycle costs above $50 million; significant multiple-agency impacts; those mandated by legislation, executive order or the secretary; and those with significant impact on the department's infrastructure.

    Even at the earliest stages in the investment process, agencies need approval of the board. That process is critical to aligning investments with agencies' business requirements. Major projects that proceed without this level of review are doomed from the beginning.

  • Obtain a waiver for acquisitions in excess of an agreed-upon threshold before proceeding. USDA happens to be mandated by its annual appropriation language to ensure that significant IT investments are approved by the chief information officer and the board. The threshold for significant acquisitions for us is now $250,000. This extra layer of review has helped my department catch and avoid many potentially significant and costly problems in investments that might not rise to the level of our board but require review by the CIO.

Even with these commandments, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that all of our investments make the most sense for our agencies, customers and employees. Following these commandments gives us confidence that we are on the right track.

Ira Hobbs is acting chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and a member of the CIO Council.


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