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Taking Responsibility For IT

Why are so many federal government IT projects in trouble, and what can be done? Here are some suggestions.

Time and time again, we've seen too many agencies take the heat for failed IT projects. They are over budget, have suffered from huge amounts of scope creep, violate established policies or U.S. law, or flat-out just don't work.

In recent months, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and most recently Interior have all come under fire from Congressional committees or other oversight groups. And those are just the ones I can name off the top of my head.

One big reason for this, in my opinion, is that nobody's in charge of IT because everybody is. To my mind, it's a muddle of confusion. You've got Congress setting overall direction for each agency (and thus each IT group), with the General Accounting Office (GAO), the Office of Management and Budget, and various Congressional committees in oversight roles. Senior IT management in individual agencies is often comprised of a mixture of political appointees and career agency personnel.

Add to this volatile mixture the idea of turnover. According to a recent GAO study, the average CIO is on the (federal) job an average of two years. Most survey respondents felt that was way too short a timeframe to get anything substantial accomplished; they said a CIO would need a minimum tenure of three to five years. But because of the pay differential, the notion of doing IT 'in a fishbowl,' and other factors, government CIOs often flee to the private sector before too long.

Now, it's a good thing that there are federal CIOs at all; it's only been since the Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996 that the post has existed. There's also more agreement than ever about the job description of a federal CIO. Still, I'm not sure the government has made optimum use of the notion.

With more talk in government circles of aligning the 'business' of the department or agency with IT, I say it's time for a change--a radical one--in how the federal government approaches the notion of accountability for IT.

Let's start by appointing CIOs to a term of, say, six years, and have them report to the deputy director of the agency. (The deputy is usually the career professional within any agency; the director is often a political appointee.) What's needed are both a chance to get something done--longevity--and a continuity of ideas.

Let's also start thinking in smaller chunks of time and money. Instead of using the federal IT infrastructure to concoct different types of multi-year, all-singing, all-dancing, billion-dollar computing initiatives, let's look at each agency's mission and what they need to accomplish in the short- and long terms. Some of the most innovative and citizen-centric IT projects are also those that have been done fairly quickly and with relatively little money, like DisabilityInfo.gov.

What do you think? I invite you, as a citizen or a government IT staffer, to share your thoughts about how to 'fix' the broken pieces of federal IT infrastructure. Certainly not all of it's in disarray, but enough has gone wrong lately that clearly something needs to be done. The question is: what?

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