At the crux of collaborative projects: joint business cases

'Every element of a business case must show it is collaborative and [that] it ties to the program's goals,' says William McVay, OMB's former business case chief.

Henrik G. DeGyor

GovBenefits project manager Denis Gusty says setting up a board of directors helped the project's partner agencies take ownership of the effort.

Olivier Douliery

VA's Gary Christopherson says his agency and DOD agreed on data-sharing standards while developing a business case for their joint electronic health records project.

Henrik G. DeGyor

Agencies quickly found out how tough it is to meet the business case requirements the Office of Management and Budget laid out in its Circular A-11 guidance.

OMB this year exposed 771 out of more than 1,400 IT business cases as being at-risk for failing to meet certain requirements and then threw down the gauntlet: Fix the shortcomings or lose project funding, OMB said.

And now as OMB raises expectations for agencies to deliver joint business cases for the 2005 budget request, IT managers are finding the complexities surrounding collaboration even more complicated. Just ask John Marshall, CIO of the Agency for International Development.
When USAID and the State Department each submitted business cases to buy a new overseas financial system from the same vendor, OMB put the brakes on the efforts and instructed the agencies to collaborate.

'OMB asked us why we couldn't deploy one system that both agencies could use,' Marshall said. 'We studied the opportunities and found areas where we could collaborate, such as training, testing, user support services, hosting and licensing.'

The experience is not uncommon. OMB is directing agencies to use the newly released Business Reference Model to find partners that share business lines and look into putting together a joint business case. OMB also will apply a heavy hand after agencies submit their budget requests in September to look for additional areas for collaboration, administration officials have said.

Marshall said this first business case is just the beginning of joint projects between USAID and State.

'This is the wave of the future,' he said. 'We are working on a joint enterprise architecture and I expect more joint business cases to come from that work.'
After OMB insisted the two agencies work together, Marshall said a steering committee of USAID and State executives developed a joint strategic plan to make sure the system met each agency's mission.

Relating the business case to each agency's strategic plan is important to get off on the right foot, said Keith Kerr, a business case product manager for Robbins-Gioia LLC of Alexandria, Va.
'Looking at the strategic plan helps identify what mission goals the project relates to,' he said.

William McVay, a former OMB senior policy analyst and business case guru, said agencies updated their Government Performance and Results Act strategic plans in April, which will help IT managers identify opportunities to collaborate.

'Agencies will have to show not only how the joint business case matches to their strategic plan, but also the President's Management Agenda,' said McVay, who now works as a vice president for e-government for DigitalNet Inc. of Herndon, Va. 'Every element of a business case must show it is collaborative and [that] it ties to the program's goals.'

Kerr said agencies have a harder time developing the joint business case than relating it to their strategic plan.

'Identifying a project manager, funding sources and who will be the lead is not easy in many cases,' Kerr said. 'Agencies don't have a history of going through all of these thought processes together. It takes a lot of hard planning.'

That degree of planning is evident in number of successful e-government projects.

The Veterans Affairs and Defense departments last year submitted a joint business case for their joint electronic health records project. A key to its success is that they agreed on standards to make the separate data repositories interoperable, said Gary Christopherson, senior adviser to VA's health undersecretary.
'When OMB looked at our business case, they said we were producing an architecturally sound model,' Christopherson said. 'The intention here is VA and DOD will have good products at the end of the day that were developed through different routes, but will be interoperable.'

Two of OMB's Quicksilver projects'the Health and Human Services Department's E-Grants and the Labor Department's GovBenefits'jumped out in front of the pack because of how they developed their business cases, McVay said.

Charles Havekost, project manager for E-Grants, said his office developed a narrative description of the initiative before writing the business case.

'The document was used to convince executives or grantees that E-Grants was a good idea because it is a vehicle to evangelize the benefits,' Havekost said. 'If we just put together a business case and gave it to the executives, it wouldn't have the same effect because it tells the story in a structured manner.'

Project leaders used the narrative, to which all agency partners contributed, to complete between 70 percent and 80 percent of the business case HHS turned in to OMB, Havekost said.

Denis Gusty, GovBenefits project manager, said his project found success because it helped partners take ownership of the project by letting them play a large role in the planning of the initiative.

GovBenefits, like E-Grants and others, set up a board of directors made up of agency partners.

'The key to being a managing partner is to be a good listener,' Gusty said. 'We sift through opinions and put it into some concrete vehicle that everyone can agree to.'

McVay said the board, or in many cases the business case team, should include all stakeholders, which includes the CIO, the chief financial officer, the procurement executive, the program managers and a member of the agency leadership such as a deputy secretary.

The board also provides an avenue for dealing with funding issues, Gusty said.

'If you want people to give you money, they should have an equal say in the process,' he said.
Havekost said the funding issue always will be the biggest challenge. His board agreed to a funding algorithm to decide how much each agency should pay to build the system.

Christopherson said that, in his project's case, having funding allocated from Congress before creating the joint business case solved a lot of problems.

'Multiple-agency funding is tricky, even with OMB's help,' he said. 'The easiest and fastest way to get the project going is to have your own funding because you can use your own contracting methods and avoid any glitches that come up when sharing appropriations.'

By the time the business case is ready for OMB, agency participation in each phase of the project should be clear, McVay said. The business case should not only show areas of collaboration, but cost savings, cost avoidance and an alternative analysis that shows why this joint approach is best, McVay added.

'The success of joint business cases depends upon each agency carrying its share of the load,' McVay said. 'There still is a lot of work agencies need to do in demonstrating collaboration. Some agencies have begun to do a good job in the detailed project and planning section.'

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