Government Management is Not an Oxymoron

My former colleagues/bosses Bill Daley and Linda Bilmes wrote an interesting op/ed piece for the Washington Post offering ideas for improving management in government. It is well worth reading. I wrote about a similar issue on December 19, asking Should We Manage Government Like a Business?  Bill and Linda used the website issues as a starting point for discussion. Those problems have been fodder for pundits and politicians, most of whom are using it to reinforce ideas they have touted for years. I cannot argue with that, because I am getting ready to do the same thing.

Two story lines in recent days struck a nerve with me. First was the idea that the problems were caused by the procurement process. Second was Jeff Zients’ comment that the team working the issues needed to work with private sector speed. As much as I would like to improve the procurement process, there is much more to this story than how we buy IT. How we manage IT projects is equally or more important.

Speed is not unique to the private sector and sloppy IT project management is not unique to government. There are many examples in government of agencies moving quickly and efficiently to deal with issues and many examples in the private sector of IT project failures. I had the good fortune to work at the Defense Logistics Agency when we were deploying a new logistics system to run the Agency’s core business. The project cost was close to a billion dollars, but it was rolled out successfully (if a bit late) and we retired the legacy systems we intended to retire. They say success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. A lot of people take credit for DLA’s successful deployment, but the idea that success has many fathers (and mothers) is actually true.

When the project began, the Agency’s Vice Director (RADM Ray Archer) insisted the entire senior civilian leadership team comprising most of the Agency’s SES cadre take personal responsibility for the project. His belief was that the civilian leaders would be the ones who had to see the project through to completion. The military leaders would be long gone by the time we were done. He also believed we could not appoint a project manager and hold him or her responsible for getting it done. We could not ask the CIO to be solely responsible, nor could we pin it on the Logistics Operations Director. The Agency was betting its future on a new system and it could not happen without the full and unwavering engagement of the entire leadership team. We met for 8 hours a day, twice a month, for several years to look at countless aspects of the system, including training, change management, business process changes, system requirements, financials, and more. In short, we managed the program as a team. We were all responsible for its success and we would have all been responsible for its failure.

That type of “all in” commitment by an organization’s leaders is essential for large-scale system projects. When it doesn’t happen, the risk of failure rises. The larger the project, the more essential total leadership commitment becomes. We can reform procurement (and I hope we do), but streamlined and simplified procurement will not replace committed leadership.

One other aspect of system projects that we need to consider is the role of the Chief Information Officer. The truth is that many federal CIOs are Chiefs in name only. Departmental CIOs generally do not control the Department’s IT budget. It is appropriated to bureau/agency/component levels and the CIO has no authority to ensure that worthwhile and needed projects get funded and executed, kill underperforming projects, and say no to wasteful and duplicative projects. There are some superb CIOs in government who know how to get things done, but they operate with one hand tied behind their backs. If we really want to manage IT projects more effectively, we need to equip our CIOs with the authority to really do their jobs.

Government management is not an oxymoron, but it is a challenge. Budget processes, slow and cumbersome procurement processes, and a lack of incentives to drive tough management decisions combine to make government far less effective than it could be. If we want to make real improvements, we need to look at the entire spectrum of management rather than just procurement.