Put outsourcing in context

Finding hire ground

  • Choose what you outsource carefully'don't look to farm out jobs that are best done in-house.

  • Set precise expectations and put them into a thorough statement of work.

  • Don't be lax in arranging project oversight'it's a real skill that requires the right people.

Oversight of an outsourced IT project 'is a discipline in and of itself, as much a skill as shipbuilding,' CDC's James Seligman says.

'Know thyself,' Socrates said more than 2,000 years ago.

Government and industry officials agree that this advice of an ancient philosopher is the key to successful outsourcing of government IT projects.

Think back to the first heady days of digital government in the early 1990s. Some government officials thought maybe they should just outsource their whole IT departments, if this newfangled thing called the Internet was going to play such a large role in delivering services to the citizens.

But not Washington state.

'Philosophically, we knew broad outsourcing wasn't for us,' said Laura Parma, assistant director for Washington's Information Services Department. 'We took a very targeted approach to it. We needed to maintain our direct relationship with citizens. Outsourcing would eliminate that touch point.'

Washington will outsource projects only in areas where it lacks expertise. For example, the state 'dabbled a bit in search engines,' Parma said. But officials found it challenging and needed expert advice, she said. DIS sought help from a professional search engine company, Ask Jeeves Inc. of Emeryville, Calif. The company installed a search engine dubbed Ask George on the Washington Web site, at www.wa.gov, substituting an icon of the state's namesake George Washington for Ask Jeeves' eponymous British butler.

Core competency

'We were able to get it up and running very quickly,' Parma said. If DIS officials had developed the search engine themselves, it would have taken much longer, she said.

One thing that sets Washington apart from other jurisdictions is its skill with the Web and digital government, Parma said. 'We made a conscious decision,' she said. 'If we have to serve the citizens through the Internet, then we have to make that a core competency.'

Stephen Lane, research vice president for IT services with the Aberdeen Group Inc., a research and consulting firm in Boston, agreed with the Socratic dictum but added a caveat: Know thyself, but get as specific as possible about who thyself is and what thyself expects from the vendor. Government managers have to give a vendor explicit instructions about project goals, performance metrics and expected cost savings, Lane said.

Outsourcing is mainstream

The attitude toward outsourcing has changed in the past decade, Lane said. 'Before, some people viewed outsourcing as bungee-jumping off a bridge, something reserved for a few daredevil types. Now it's become increasingly mainstream. Back then, people would say, 'I can't outsource my data center. Impossible.' Now those same people can't outsource their data centers fast enough. You get to a point where you have to ask yourself, 'Am I an IT company or am I the National Institute of Standards and Technology?' '

James Seligman, CIO of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed that the key to a happy outsourcing outcome is setting expectations. He stressed the importance of a well-developed statement of work.

'You have to clearly and thoroughly describe your expectations, with a very well-identified description of what to do, stating environmental conditions, resource requirements, and standards and statutes that have to be adhered to,' he said. 'But we don't tell the contractor how to do it. Industry brings its own skills and expertise'but if they have to meet specific standards, we have to tell them, for instance, use this specific software product.'

Seligman also cautioned that government oversight of an outsourced project is not something anyone can do. 'It's a separate discipline. It's not an engineer skill set, either. It's a discipline in and of itself, as much a skill as shipbuilding.'

About 18 months ago, CDC successfully overhauled its WAN and telecommunications network by outsourcing the work to a consortium of companies led by EDS Corp., which partnered with BellSouth Corp., Nortel Networks Corp. of Brampton, Ontario, and others. The consortium upgraded CDC's metropolitan area network that connects 24 facilities in Atlanta and outlying facilities in Washington and West Virginia.

Seligman attributed the favorable outcome of the network upgrade to rigorous planning, careful project definition, and an easy working relationship between government and industry staff. 'There were no surprises that were not successfully mediated,' he said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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