Industry panel suggests concrete ways to improve major IT acquisitions

Strengthening project management is one of four main objectives of a 33-part action plan.

Improved government-private sector communication, more attention to developing strong program managers, an incremental approach to projects and stronger risk management would help enhance the information technology acquisition process, a panel of industry and academic experts concluded in a report released on Monday.

While most of the recommendations from the Commission on Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century are not new, the report does take them a step further by proposing a 33-part action plan for the Office of Management and Budget, agencies and contractors to achieve the reforms -- and it suggests deadlines for each item.

"For years, the community has known how to improve things but, so far, we have collectively failed to accomplish the mission," Steve Kelman, panel co-chairman and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said in a statement. "We have chosen to focus our efforts on identifying specific, practical actions that government and industry can take to overcome the obstacles to fully realizing the promise of government technology."

The nonprofit TechAmerica Foundation established the commission in July to close the gap between government and private sector technology. Its report comes as OMB considers overhauling or cutting 30 major IT projects, worth $30 billion collectively, to ensure they work better and faster.

Kelman, one of three academics on the 31-member panel, said he was impressed by industry's constructive reaction to OMB's decision to rethink the projects, especially during a time of heightened partisanship. "I think we could have easily imagined a situation where industry went on a lobbying warpath," he said during an event in Washington to unveil the report.

Moving to a culture that recognizes and rewards good management is critical to the success of complex IT acquisitions, the commission found. Among concrete steps to accomplishing this, OMB should create a formal career track for program managers, agencies should assign a manager outside the IT shop to oversee the project from beginning to end, and industry should ensure managers' abilities are aligned with the phase of the project at hand, the report said.

The generational shift in the IT workforce presents a good opportunity to emphasize program management and make it a desirable career path for younger workers, Kelman said. Phillip Bond, president of TechAmerica, noted professionalizing program management also could help improve the public's trust in the government's ability to execute projects.

Panelists also stressed the importance of better communication between government and industry. OMB could set the tone by issuing a memo to agency deputy secretaries, senior procurement officials and chief information officers, reminding them the Federal Acquisition Regulation allows a range of discussion among federal officials and contractors to improve project outcomes, the report said.

To encourage agencies to tackle projects in smaller increments, the commission recommended changes to training and the funding and review process, among other steps. An incremental approach helps gather reaction earlier on from users in systems development and gives political appointees working on a one- or two-year time frame more of a stake in the program, commissioners found.

Biting off smaller pieces also helps mitigate risk, noted Linda Gooden, commission co-chairwoman and executive vice president of information systems and global services at Lockheed Martin Corp. Other risk-management strategies include having a third party provide ongoing reviews of potential cost, schedule and performance pitfalls, the panel said.

To ensure the report doesn't collect dust on a shelf, Bond said TechAmerica has scheduled meetings at the White House to discuss the recommendations and will distribute them to agencies and congressional staff. The foundation also plans to follow up with OMB, agencies and industry to remind them of proposed timelines.