Lessons from the Feds on Managing IT (Really!)

A new federal law aims to balance innovation and efficiency. It could serve as a guide for other levels of government.
January 7, 2015 AT 9:00 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

From 1983 to 2011, I taught at Harvard and, beginning in 1987, ran a research program on strategic computing for governments and what it takes to be an effective leader in a heavily networked world. For 24 years, for three or four sessions a year and two or three days at a time, we'd explore the information-technology issues that were hot at the time, such as how to get citizens "online, not in line."

At the end of those sessions, the most common comment from state and local participants was something along the lines of "Good grief, I'm glad I don't work for the federal government!"

To absorb the risks of strategically important innovations -- and survive -- you need divergent sources of power to work well together. The federal environment has long been too big and slow for that. As a result, state and local governments have been the most important early movers for customer service, productivity, equity, transparency and other key IT-enabled goals.

Given that history, I was rather surprised last month to see the passage of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). Emerging after more than two years of negotiations between the House and the Senate, FITARA provides the most comprehensive legislative overhaul of federal IT procurement and management in 18 years.

So, what does FITARA do, and what can state and local governments learn from it?

Among other things, FITARA provides top-level chief information officers with increased authority over hiring, project funding and approvals. It eases the way for government-wide software purchasing to leverage centralized buying power and strategic sourcing. It centralizes authority over data-center consolidation, and it provides for yearly program reviews to reduce IT redundancies, save money and improve outputs. It promotes both "agile" and incremental development approaches for new systems, and it aims to establish an IT acquisition workforce with expanded access to specialized, highly-skilled program and project managers.

The key challenge for IT is this new and ever-shifting balance between efficiency and innovation. "Incremental development" may not sound too exciting, but in the short term it tends to be most important: By far the most resources in government are expended in slow-changing patterns of operation. Getting your slow movers up to average is typically Job 1.

But over the longer term -- decade by decade rather than year by year -- real progress depends on more-fundamental innovation. By far the most technology-related improvement over the past 50 years in military power, health care, education, tax collection and other government responsibilities has come not from adopting long-established best practices but rather from adopting the best new practices enabled by a heavily networked world.

It is FITARA's focus on the balance between centralized and localized authority and between technological and programmatic concerns that makes the new law worth examining. State and local governments that have not aggressively captured enterprise-wide and broader efficiencies need to more deeply engage their senior budget and operational leaders and give central CIOs more authority. At the same time, those that have not pursued program innovation should aggressively apply agile development and get department heads and other program leaders more intensively engaged in IT-related investments.

How should we then resolve conflicts between efficiency and innovation? There is obviously no simple and universally applicable formula to objectively grind out the right decisions. But the FITARA bias makes sense. In general, governments should give central CIOs more control over enterprise-wide and larger technology standards while giving program leaders more responsibility and control over specific IT-enabled program innovations.

It's not clear, of course, whether FITARA by itself will enable the federal government to get beyond the struggles it has encountered in turning new IT into better government performance. What is clear, however, is that senior leaders at all levels of government need to directly address the increasing importance of technology-enabled change and reallocate authority to address the new opportunities and trade-offs between efficiency and innovation.