Path to the future? One feat in front of the other

Path to the future? One feat in front of the other

About This Series

Blueprint for Modernization is the first of six special reports geared to executive level government managers GCN will be publishing in 2002. Issues containing GCN Management are mailed not only to the paper's regular readers but also to a group of 5,000 policy, legislative and regulatory leaders who are concerned with managing technology. Upcoming topics include complying with multiple mandates, managing through crises, and navigating A-76 competitions and outsourcing alternatives. For GCN's complete editorial calendar, check our Web site at www.gcn.com. Comments about GCN Management should be directed to editor@gcn.com.

You've made the decision to modernize your systems. No doubt getting to that point took a lot of time, analysis and soul searching. Now, where do you go from here?

For government agencies about to embark on a modernization program, the long road ahead can be daunting. They need a blueprint.

'People doing modernization projects have one foot in the old world, one foot in the new world and they're not sure which leg to lean on,' said Dale Vecchio, research director for application development and legacy evolution at Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn.

Consider the Internal Revenue Service's two-decade history of modernization breakdowns. After its second modernization attempt sputtered to a halt in the mid-1990s, with billions of taxpayer dollars spent and little to show for it, Congress began to crack down.

While specific lawmakers addressed the agency's modernization efforts Congress in 1998 revolutionized the agency itself by passing the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act. The act required the agency to overhaul its business processes and produce a multifaceted modernization strategy. Since then, the IRS seems to have gotten its act together.

The agency and its industry partners have completely overhauled the Business Systems Modernization (BSM) program, developing an enterprise architecture and a formal systems lifecycle, laying out tighter management controls, introducing new contracting approaches and imposing performance measures.

GAO support

Even the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency whose criticism of some major agency modernization efforts has been uncompromising and fastidious, has acknowledged that IRS modernization is moving in the right direction.

In fact, though it's early in the process, BSM could be emerging as a model for federal modernization projects'or at least a leg to lean on.

'All of the other agencies, GAO and [the Office of Management and Budget] are watching us,' said Stephen Kalish, president of the Federal Sector-Civil Group for Computer Sciences Corp., the IRS's prime modernization contractor. 'There's sort of a scoop going on here if we can do this right.'

As the IRS experience demonstrates, modernization isn't simply a matter of upgrading the technological infrastructure, although that alone is a significant task. In the current vernacular, re-engineering business practices'which the IT infrastructure supports'is often the real heart of modernization.

'For a long time agencies invested in IT basically for the sake of continuing to have systems that are 20 years old keep running,' said a senior OMB official. Under the Bush administration, the push is to modernize processes.

Shadowing any government modernization effort today is a many-tentacled beast of legislative and regulatory requirements, most of which have been put in place in the last 10 years.

Rules of the game

In essence, they require IT assets to be managed as an investment that provides value to an agency's mission and business processes. The weight is on tight management, performance and measurable results.

For government agencies, the mandates also impose a complexity on the modernization process that is unknown to the private sector.

For agencies, unlike companies, it's not simply a matter of convincing the CEO and the board of directors. You've got to get everybody on board the modernization ship, or it is destined to founder.

A large part of the effort is preparing people for trauma-inducing change. 'It's often not the technology that is the most challenging aspect of modernizing'it's the people and culture,' said Debra Stouffer, Housing and Urban Development deputy CIO for IT reform.

In the nascent modernization model, there also is heavy reliance on outside experts and industry specialists. The go-it-alone routine is a thing of the past.

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