Of the people: Good business cases are worth the effort

Ira Hobbs

Without solid business cases for IT investment, the rush to e-government will not pan out as program managers envision. If they and CIOs can't document benefits, costs, project plans and effective project leadership, it will be impossible to unify and simplify government services.

For the more than 1,700 people who attended the Office of Management and Budget's April training sessions on how to build better business cases, the importance of presenting effectively was made painfully clear. Without an effective business case, you can forget about getting funds for your pet project. Even ongoing, but underperforming, projects will feel the glare of this spotlight.

I don't mean to imply that no one in government is making a good business case. After the Clinger-Cohen Act, I think managers have been getting better at it. But building a business case is no trivial process, and many still have a way to go.

In our personal lives when we make major investments, such as buying a new car or house, we don't just throw money at the first thing that catches our eye. Most people have a plan that takes into consideration the requirements, potential costs and performance. People evaluate alternatives to buying new'repairing an old car or sprucing up the current house rather than selling it.

In government, managers must be able to document how an IT investment supports the agency's mission as well as its risk and expected return on investment. They must identify opportunities to leverage investments.

Too many people still think all this documenting and planning is a waste of time and effort. They know intuitively that the investment is justified. Or think they do.

To such folks I say that clear planning and clear writing reflect clear thinking. Given the public's trust in us to invest their resources wisely, clear thinking is a prerequisite for what we hope to do.

In a recent column, I wrote that those of us working on e-government should be focusing our energies in three areas: leadership, collaboration and partnership, and project management. Soon we'll begin fiscal 2004 budget preparations. Managers must bring these competencies to bear in building business cases.

A speaker at the OMB training session said this integrated approach involves everyone: the CIO and chief financial officer on down through the budget, procurement and program offices. Those functions must work together to build strong business cases.

I was reminded about the future while watching a group of sixth graders, my son included, with Palm Inc. handheld PCs exchanging their Hotmail e-mail addresses and favorite Web sites.

These cybersavvy youngsters are tomorrow's taxpayers and voters. They are the audience agencies seek to attract and serve. As we invest resources to make e-government a reality for constituents, we have to do it right. Let's first build the business case.

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

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