The dividends are in the details

How to make a case

  • Read OMB's Circular A-11, the blueprint for writing a business case.

  • Meet with stakeholders, including employees working with the system and outside users of its services.

  • Find examples of successful similar projects and glean the best practices that apply to your project.

  • Get third-party advice from organizations such as the Industry Advisory Council.

  • Gain good knowledge of the funding process.

  • Work within the Federal Enterprise Architecture.

Developing a business case is difficult but rewarding. 'The private sector does it all the time. There's a reason they do it,' Recreation One-Stop project manager Charlie Grymes says.

Olivier Douliery

Under the Office of Management and Budget's structure for approving and funding agency IT projects, writing a business case has become an inescapable fact of life.

And there's no escaping another fact, which Charlie Grymes kept coming back to in talking about the Recreation One-Stop project: 'It is,' he said, 'a lot of work.' But Grymes, project manager for the Interior Department's Quicksilver initiative, has found that all that work pays off.

'The private sector does it all the time. There's a reason they do it,' he said.

In fact, business planning would be very beneficial for systems integration even if it weren't tied to funding, he said.

Recreation One-Stop is a multiagency effort to give users access to information and services for all national parks and some state parks. Interior's Recreation.gov site includes local maps and driving directions, a site-by-site search function and an evolving collection of cross-government information.

In developing the business case, Interior started with OMB's Circular A-11, which includes the road map for making business cases. Following the guidance, available at www.whitehouse.gov/omb/circulars, was one of the areas that prompted Grymes to mention the amount of work involved, but he said 'they ask the right questions' about meeting the goal of fitting into a collaborative, governmentwide enterprise architecture.

Meeting with stakeholders'both government workers and people who would use the site'also provided valuable information. 'We found that we needed to be a strong data sharing environment,' Grymes said, and to employ 'standards usable to the whole recreation community, not just government bureaucrats.'

Help from IAC

Interior also got help from the Industry Advisory Council, which had offered to review the case studies of Quicksilver projects and give pointers on best practices. 'What we got was some very instructive advice,' which is now being used to revise the business case for fiscal 2005, Grymes said. 'In my experience, if you can get advice from IAC, you get it.'

What are other keys to developing a successful business case? First, Grymes said, project leaders need to understand funding and how it works. Second, they need to take advantage of the Federal Enterprise Architecture.

That involves a measure of patience. Developing an enterprise architecture is a long-term process; it won't just pop up one day. 'I'd like to pick one up at the street corner,' Grymes said, 'but I haven't found the right corner.'

Nevertheless, the government's architecture process 'helps you decide which bite of the elephant you want to take today, and which you can chew later.'

Grymes said the process will steadily gain momentum. 'As more of the FEA gets elaborated, it will be easier to use ... each of us builds our piece,' he said.

Information and updates on the enterprise architecture are available at the Federal Enterprise Architecture Program Management Office, at www.feapmo.gov.
Aside from following official directives, a bit of imitation might not hurt a business case, either. Former Commerce CIO Roger Baker, now with CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Va., recommends finding successful business cases from other agencies. 'Get any materials [and] examples you can and use them as templates,' he said.

And keep your eye on the bottom line'return on investment. 'ROI is the key issue,' he said. 'How will it be measured? How tangible can it be made?'

He also suggested tying the project to the goals of the Government Performance and Results Act, identifying risks, addressing security and privacy, detailing the program management structure and setting performance metrics.

Finally, he offered a practical consideration of past performance, which could weigh in the minds of OMB officials reviewing a project. 'What is the agency's track record at delivering programs like this on budget and on schedule?' he asked. 'If the track record is poor, why should better results be expected this time?'

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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