Former NASA CIO Linda Cureton offers five ways agencies can manage IT programs more effectively in 2014.
With all the Monday morning quarterbacks piling on HealthCare.gov, with their observations of what went wrong and what needs to happen in the future, heaven forbid that I should be one more.
Consultants are already springing up like weeds to write reports and perform studies to help government program managers achieve better results. There will be congressional hearings and studies from the Government Accountability Office making retrospective observations about programs that are struggling. And we can count on a fresh harvest of investigations by inspectors general pointing fingers of blame in many places.
That said, maybe it's time we resolve to improve program management in government. Here are five starters:
1. Use private sector innovation judiciously or it can be damaging to government programs. During the debates about the failures in the HealthCare.gov rollout, we heard over and over about how companies like Amazon can deliver this capability -- therefore why can't the government deliver successfully? As it applies to private sector software rollout practices, let's examine Microsoft's implementation of Windows 8.1.
"The rocky rollout of Windows 8.1 should serve as a reminder for consumers, software developers, hardware vendors, enterprise IT pros, and Microsoft itself that a period of careful testing and analysis must precede the release and installation of an operating system update."
Microsoft made a business decision about the expense of testing versus the delay in deployment of the new software. Perhaps it made sense in some backroom discussions with the Microsoft illuminati. In government, however, the currency by which we measure return-on-investment is politics.
Good program managers will make tradeoff decisions relative to schedule, scope, and budget, but they also need to look at what some call the "economic system of politics" in their tradeoffs. Having considered this, the government program manager may ask the question, "Can we truly afford the risk of a problematic rollout?" These questions and answers will demand shifts in how we execute major programs.
2. Rely on empowered and capable CIOs as key contributors to IT reforms. In most private sector transformational IT projects, it is implausible that the CEO of a company would embark on such an effort without the stalwart leadership of the CIO. Yet, in government, it is done all the time.
In its analysis of the challenges of the rollout of the IT reforms around the 2010 census, the GAO in its report "2010 Census: Preliminary Lessons Learned Highlight the Need for Fundamental Reforms," describes problems where "the lack of staff skilled in cost estimation during the 2010 Census points to inadequate human-capital planning, while... IT problems stemmed from not fully and consistently performing certain functions including IT investment management." Clearly this was the role of the CIO who certainly understood this, yet found himself in a familiar minimized position.
3. Failure is an option, so implement sound risk management practices. As a former NASA executive, it's almost amusing to hear former Apollo 13 flight director Eugene Kranz's quote to the contrary, "Failure is not an option," so overused by success-oriented managers.
NASA flight director Eugene F. Kranz, at his console on May 30, 1965, in Houston. (NASA Photo)
NASA's legacy of success comes from strong risk mitigation planning, innovative thinking, and good old-fashioned heroics. Heroes are great to have, but are not so good to rely on -- at least in most circumstances. Any program management plan that relies solely on heroics is doomed to fail. I get it that perhaps the higher ups don't want to hear all that, and in fact, may not want to pay for it. But, invest in solid risk management. You won't regret it.
4. Stop whining and create bureaucracy that works. A bureaucracy that works may be considered by most to be an oxymoron. Alan Greenberg, former General Service Administration executive and author of the book "Confessions of a Government Man: How to Succeed in Any Bureaucracy," notes how stifling processes, regulations, rules, and policies can be to those who want to do the right thing.