56 for 56

VA's exhaustive preparation leads to a perfect round of business case approval

The Veterans Affairs Department batted 1.000 this year, when the Office of Management and Budget approved all of its 56 submitted IT business cases for fiscal 2005 on the first try. An Exhibit 300 that fulfills OMB requirements means the IT project has a better chance at funding.

'This was a great discipline for the department, not just to get through the 300 process but to do a better job at program management,' said VA deputy CIO Ed Meagher. Developing a successful business case means nailing the basics, like knowing the customer, the requirements and metrics, and ensuring security throughout the project.

'It's really a governance model that allows you, at an enterprise level, management of the whole portfolio,' Meagher said.
An agency can't assemble a business case in a few months and expect to meet OMB requirements. It takes a commitment from the department to putting in place the right people and resources for a year's time, every year, Meagher said.

VA's business case acceptance rate on the first go-round went from 25 percent in the first year to 87 percent in the second year to 100 percent last year, which no other large federal organization has attained.

'Our success with OMB was due to the content being prepared by the project sponsors and reviewed through the CIO,' said Tim Weigel, acting director for VA's IT Capital Planning Service, who directs work on the department's Exhibit 300 documents.

He linked the process between department IT program managers and the engineering staff and zeroed in on acquiring ProSight Portfolio's Fast Track for Capital Planning and Investment Control, which was installed last year.

VA expects the software, from ProSight Inc. of Portland, Ore., to reduce the amount of work the department has to do on the fiscal 2006 and future budgets, he said.

VA used the software to build a database of its Exhibit 300 information, such as spending sums for project stages, justifications and how the project fits into the overall budget. The software analyzes for the proper mix of investments to fit the department's strategic goals. It will move VA beyond investment management into IT portfolio management, Weigel said.

Having a group of highly trained program managers is key to developing a detailed business case. VA committed to getting program managers to Level 3 certification, the highest level, for all Exhibit 300 IT projects that required program managers. The department had a total of 59 IT projects, but three did not require business cases or program managers.

Level 3 certification demands extensive training, including seven weeks of schooling, even for experienced managers. 'We didn't give anybody the seven weeks off'they still had to do their regular job,' Meagher said.

Difficulties in developing a successful business case stem from the fact that OMB raises the bar each year by requiring more details and changing the emphasis of its evaluation criteria, which means agencies have to adjust.

For example, heavy emphasis might be on security one year and earned value another. 'But it may take two years to get the data to accomplish the different emphasis,' said Craig Luigart, who moved from the Education Department to VA last year as associate deputy assistant secretary for policies, plans and programs to lead the staff on the project.

The idea of a business case was somewhat alien to government, at least in the beginning. 'And if you start down a path doing one thing and convince senior management to come on board and then that path takes a turn, it's hard to go back each year and say what we did last year isn't as important,' Meagher said.

In the broad view, however, 'the business case process is a good way to manage IT in the department. You're probably doing most of the changes anyway,' he said.

Under the earned-value emphasis, an agency would break down the amount of dollars needed for each level of a project, similar to building a house for a certain amount. The agency must demonstrate it has completed one section before it can advance to the next.

'Earned-value analysis is an early warning system, if nothing else,' Meagher said. If an agency has spent 50 percent of a project's funds but can demonstrate only 20 percent of its progress, it's time to stop and re-evaluate.

When a project's costs overrun, the impulse is to keep throwing more money at it because so much is already invested, and the project is viewed as too big to fail.

'The ProSight business intelligence tools help demonstrate if we are moving correctly, making progress. And if not, you can get in front of it to avoid a train wreck,' Luigart said.

A final test helps VA clarify data. Luigart set up a process where several VA analysts independently evaluate and rate business cases with OMB's criteria and 1-to-5 scoring.

Whereas OMB rounds fractional scores up, VA rounds scores down. The analyst reports what parts need to be reworked'on a short deadline of one to three days. The back-and-forth continues until the business cases merit a 4, OMB's cutoff for first-pass approval.

'We applied a vigor in the analysis process that was iterative internally. When we filed the business cases, we were fairly confident that what we were sending over was in conformance,' Meagher said.

Users visit a Web site to work with the software, paid for via a yearly subscription, but the application resides on a server under Microsoft Windows 2000 at VA, said Rick Turoczy, ProSight senior marketing manager.

The software includes an OMB Exhibit 300 template, in which VA records data. ProSight has developed algorithms that agencies can tweak for their own use to facilitate manipulating the data.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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