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There's No Substitute For Leadership

Viewed over the near term, the pace of
progress in using IT to improve the
federal government often seems
painfully slow, with almost as many
setbacks as success stories. A search of
recent publications reveals a number of articles that
chronicle federal IT's continuing challenges: large
project failures, critical reports by oversight
organizations, lack of funding, interoperability
issues and the like. Many of these stories could
have been published a decade ago and would still
be on point today.

However, viewed from a broader
perspective, the federal IT landscape
is quite different than it was a decade
ago when a significant void in federal
IT leadership and vision led to
acquisition and implementation
failures.

Congress responded with the
Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996,
establishing a legal and policy
framework designed to
strengthen the leadership and
management of federal IT, as
well as the acquisition
mechanisms designed to
procure technology and
related services.

Implementing the
procedures, and the
organizational and
cultural changes
required to effectively
carry out Clinger-Cohen's intent, has
proven much more
difficult.

Fast-forward a few
years, and within the same legal and
policy environment, the Bush
administration implements an e-gov
program that focuses attention and
effort in well-defined areas. The Office
of Management and Budget (OMB) is
clearly in charge, as witnessed by the
ongoing build-out of an IT investment
decision framework that spans the
federal government and which is used
to approve or eliminate proposed IT
projects.

Change Happens

Why the change? The answer certainly
isn't simple, but I believe the critical
differentiator has been leadership.

During the Clinton
administrations, a bottom-up strategic
philosophy flourished. Many
inventive and entrepreneurial ideas
resulted from the National
Performance Review (NPR), the
management reform initiative created
in 1993 [renamed the National
Partnership for Reinventing
Government in 1997 and closed in
January 2001]. But most of those
ideas were never fully implemented.

The Bush administration's
approach has been quite different.
The President's Management Agenda
(PMA) takes a top-down approach
and includes a clear set of priorities
and marching orders to agencies.

And while most of the Bush e-gov
program has yet to be fully
implemented, the actions and focus of
both OMB and agencies signal the
likelihood that major portions of the
program will be implemented.

We can learn by comparing these
two radically different approaches to
solving what are essentially the same
problems.

I believe that leadership lies at the
core of the lessons learned and what
agencies and project managers can
glean from these experiences.

Lead the Way

I suggest that effective leadership
comprises several qualities:

Clarity of vision. I think both
administrations score well here. The
NPR was designed, the administration
said, to "create a government that
works better and costs less." The Bush
administration says that its
management reform program is
designed to be "citizen-centered,
results-oriented and market-based."
Both messages convey their programs'

objective and a sense of what is most
important in reaching it.

Clarity of strategy and focus.
NPR's organizing principles flowed
from the bottom up and addressed 14
management areas. The PMA is top-down driven and addresses five
management areas. At comparable
points in the two initiatives'
development, the Bush program
clearly has been the more effective.
I attribute this to its more
understandable strategy and narrower
focus. In the midst of numerous
challenges, it is difficult to focus on a
few, but the current administration
has done so, and that is an exercise in
leadership.

Clarity of accountability. The Bush
PMA has been more effective in that it
holds the head of the agency
accountable for results. In the NPR,
much of the accountability was
diffused among cross-agency
committees and working groups.

A call to action. Both
administrations grasp this. Both
successfully created government-wide
programs, and both expended
significant effort in pursuit of program
objectives at both executive branch
and agency levels.

Monitoring of a program's results.
Closely related to accountability, a
periodic evaluation of results—including subsequent course
corrections—is needed to keep
initiatives on track. Here, I believe the
Bush program has been the more
effective. The combination of the
PMA scorecard and the president's
personal attention to the results that
agencies achieve ensures that the
PMA remains a clear priority for
agency leaders.

Lessons Learned

I believe that these elements of
leadership are important not only to
large reform programs such as the
NPR and PMA, but also to agency
improvement programs and to
individual IT projects. I think all
would agree that while the lessons are
straightforward, their application in
large government organizations can
prove complex and quite challenging.
I suspect that while you may take issue
with the contrasts I draw between
management approaches, you will
agree with my starting point: There is
no substitute for leadership.

Dec 31 2009

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