Next-generation governance is the key to future IT success

Agencies can take advantage of tools and technologies available to make better decisions

Fred Knops Mike Isman Over the last 10-plus years, leaders within federal agencies have worked diligently to establish and maintain effective IT governance practices. But despite many well-intentioned efforts, effective governance remains an elusive goal for most agencies.

With the recent release of the 25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management, federal CIO Vivek Kundra summed it up this way: “Too often, federal IT projects run over budget, behind schedule, or fail to deliver promised functionality.”

While the challenge is vexing — and longstanding — its causes are understandable. 

Federal agency governance boards often lack sufficient data for effective decision-making; numerous approval gates slow progress without enhancing oversight; and the overall decision process often struggles to keep pace with rapid technological advancements in the arenas of cybersecurity, cloud computing, mobile communications, social networking and biometric identification.

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Streamlining IT governance

Adding to the complexity are shrinking budgets and increased scrutiny of federal programs aimed at eliminating redundancies and waste and ensuring delivery of promised capabilities.

At its heart, the issue can be reduced still further, to two prime challenges:

1. An ever-increasing focus on process and compliance has made governance processes burdensome rather than a catalyst for program success and mission enablement. 

It is not unusual for some agencies to have systems engineering life cycles that require the existence of 125 or more separate documents to support various milestones and gate reviews. In addition, we have seen that programs can be subject to more than 20 governance entities, such as enterprise architecture boards, chief information security officer boards and acquisition review boards, to name just a few. This proliferation of governance requirements forces many federal IT program managers to spend more time satisfying reporting and compliance mandates than actually leading the development and deployment of IT capabilities in support of their agency’s mission.

2. Current governance techniques were devised in a less-connected age.

Today’s governance models don’t take full advantage of applications and processes that allow for the rapid and transparent exchange of rich information and data within and among agencies. As a result, governance processes tend to be linear, hierarchical and comparatively slow. Communications between program managers and their executives are often conducted in isolation from similar conversations occurring in related programs, hindering the ability of decision-makers to collaborate across a portfolio of similar efforts.  

Next-generation governance

So, the challenges are numerous and complex. What is the path forward? It lies in next-generation governance — not as a mere catch phrase, but as a tactile, sustainable method of operations.

Next-generation governance provides a framework to help federal agency CIOs and other leaders understand how they can use available tools and data, not only to manage individual programs but also to coordinate program portfolios within agencies and across the government. In particular, the framework can help agencies build data-driven governance that ensures compatibility, consistency and efficiency in federal IT investments.

In pursuit of next-generation governance, federal agency IT decision-makers would be well served to consider the following:

Tightly defined missions drive outcomes. Construct portfolios of investments that align to a single or small group of mission objectives that can be clearly understood by the entire organization. Segment architectures should be aligned with these portfolios, such that a given segment or group of segments represents a "mission" area, such revenue collection, border protection or grants dispersal. 

By collecting programs into areas of common mission – regardless of where these programs fall in the overall organization – the trade-space for program resource allocation is more properly bounded. By closely aligning investments to mission, senior executives can make better, more effective investment decisions. While this concept is not new – organizations for years have sought to construct IT portfolios that align to strategic goals and objectives – the advent of robust analytical tools that eliminate the need for time-consuming data calls allow even the most junior decision-makers in an organization to allocate more time to examining how their programs directly affect mission success. It is also useful to recognize that portfolios may cut across not only missions, but agencies, too. When defining your mission, don’t let conventional boundaries limit you.

By aligning programs against a cooperative mission set, the question can be asked – how can these programs work together to accelerate the speed of the programs through the required gates, rather than act competitively. This mission acceleration reduces program costs, reduces the amount of oversight necessary per program gates, and provides the first step of reducing governance costs.

Take a new look at measuring and mitigating risk. As any program manager can attest, risk — related to both mission and performance — is a difficult thing to quantify. However, over the past few years, significant advances have been made in the ability to monitor, measure and anticipate risk. New applications integrate different data from disparate data silos and offer a new way to mine data, connect discrete data elements and identify trends in ways that we could never achieve a few years ago. Furthermore, new methods for evaluating risk are going well beyond traditional approaches of measuring, estimating and multiplying threat, vulnerability and consequence. 

New simulation tools help better understand possible outcomes. New methods have been created for quantifying previously difficult to measure indicators of risk, such as analytical hierarch processes, which draw on algorithms to better define risk across projects within a portfolio.

Lastly, the state of the art has advanced dramatically in the ability to visualize and map risk for mission portfolio leaders. As a result, it is now possible to draw relationships between factors, provide decision makers a greater ability to ask “what-if” questions and see the analytical consequences in real time.

With this new generation of tools and analytical structures, risk becomes the optimal vehicle against which to assess program probability of success and rebalance the allocation of resources –  improving the ability for next-generation governance teams to effectively identify, plan, communicate and execute risk mitigation strategies.

Seek decision 'agility.' Many program managers can tell stories of “shopping around” for approval through multiple oversight boards and committees, each making minor (or significant) tweaks; by the time the final approval is received the program manager must return to the first board with a program in hand that might not resemble the one that board had seen earlier. 

This vertical model of governance is inherently corrosive to speed and agility, and in today’s connected world, often fails to make use of modern tools and technologies (such as social media) to make faster and more informed decisions.

Achieving a more agile decision process starts with empowering the individual closest to the action on the ground — the program manager. Specifically, program managers must feel comfortable raising issues in a supportive environment that seeks to solve problems and not punish messengers. Program managers have a secret weapon in the array of modern data and analytics tools that help frame and visualize the ramifications of specific decisions or governance issues.

Additionally, the governance structure in which program managers operate must be flexible enough to avoid the need to "shop around decisions" to obtain consensus from large, diverse boards but instead provide targeted advice and input through smaller, focused entities, such as executive steering committees (ESCs), that foster greater collaboration between program managers and executives across the organization.

Information at the center

Over time, governance has, on sometimes too frequent a basis, become less of a program aide and more of an exercise in getting approvals and checking boxes – an exercise that focuses on process rather than on outcomes. In addition, many program managers find existing governance approaches to be almost punitive in nature. Rather than providing the help and guidance program managers need to successfully deliver positive results from their programs, governance processes present additional challenges to overcome. Similarly, because programs are often evaluated in isolation, governance processes do not provide agency executives with the information they need to allocate and deploy IT resources in the most efficient way to support the agency’s mission.

As a result, we see a next-generation governance model emerging that streamlines and strengthens decision-making by putting information at the center of IT governance — especially as related to the arenas of cloud computing, cybersecurity and geospatial intelligence .

This new model — which draws on the themes inherent in the 25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management, but is not limited to them — will harness the capabilities of richer data sets and new, powerful analytic tools to give decision-makers transparent insight into program performance, while also enabling rapid information sharing and real-time reporting to support a faster, more agile process.

By aligning portfolio investment decisions with mission objectives to help decision-makers allocate resources among programs in a way that reduces mission and program risks, next-generation governance can serve as a powerful engine to reduce the burdens and cost of governance while improving oversight, delivering programs on schedule and within budget, and advancing mission objectives.

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