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DorobekINSIDER: An open letter to OMB: Stop the public sector bashing

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An open letter to OMB Director Peter Orszag:

Dear Mr. Orszag,

I write this with a certain regret. I have tremendous amount of respect for you and the work you have done over the years. And I appreciate the Office of Management and Budget’s initiative to cut waste across government — and improve the use of IT. I have been covering government IT for nearly 20 years — and, as I wrote in Federal Computer Week years ago, I firmly believe that the government can use technology to accomplish its mission more effectively.

And I think the administration has taken a number of positive steps in its first 18 months.

And therefore, I was pleased with Monday’s OMB announcement about the initiative to cut waste by reforming government IT. Federal News Radio’s Jason Miller reported on the policy memos — he has been out in front covering this issue.

There are three steps to the plan:

  • Fix federal financial systems — a critical step
  • Stepped up and detailed reviews of troubled IT systems
  • A plan for improving the federal government’s overall IT procurement and management practices. That plan will come within by October.

I even read the policies [PDF]:

Unfortunately, I was disappointed with your post on the subject. It included this line:

While a productivity boom has transformed private sector performance over the past two decades, the federal government has almost entirely missed this transformation and now lags far behind on efficiency and service quality. We are wasting billions of dollars a year, and more importantly are missing out on the huge productively improvements other sectors have benefited from.

Quite simply, we can’t significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the federal government without fixing IT.

The emphasis is mine, not yours. But, to be honest, I found the wording unfair… and disappointing.

A few points:

It is utterly untrue to say that the federal government has “almost entirely missed this transformation.” I have been covering government technology for nearly 20 years. During that time, there have been remarkable strides. Today, IT touches just about every facet of every part of every business in government — and has utterly transformed certain parts of government. In fact, I would argue you would be hard pressed to find a part of government that hasn’t been transformed by IT.

Is there more to be done? Absolutely, and I give you and your team credit for your IT initiative… but it leads to the second point…

Please oh please retire the tired, tedious comparison between the public and private sectors. I would argue that it simply isn’t true because it isn’t a fair comparison. The challenges facing government agencies are, in many ways, larger in scope — and they are more complex — than those faced by most private sector organizations. And there are scores of cases that make this point. The one I often use are Homeland Security’s efforts to secure ports from potential terrorism. That mission can be accomplished: We can enlist resources to stop anything from coming into or out of the country. That would bring trade to a screeching halt — and having the same result on the U.S. economy… clearly not an option. And opening for any and all trade is also not an option. So the federal government has the unenviable task of finding the mix of those black-and-white options — essentially, they have to determine what is the right shade of gray.

That task is even more complex because those decisions are subject to constant hindsight review — sometimes years later. And then layer a complex management structure… within agencies… within the executive branch itself… and within Congress.

And none of this even touches on a almost utterly broken budget process where agencies are assigned money months into the fiscal year — and then told that they must spend it before the end of that fiscal year.

But even beyond that, the public-private comparison is specious because it is overly broad. What are you talking about when you highlight the private sector? Is the model General Motors? AIG?

We all have worked for private sector organizations where we have been amazed by what we deem as inefficiencies — or organizations that have terrible service quality. I now no longer use my United Visa card — put out by Chase Bank — because just about every third charge is rejected. Even worse — try to find a Chase official in their credit card division to contact.

And what are you talking about when you lambaste the public sector? There aren’t any examples of government agencies that use technology effectively?

Last year in AFCEA’s Signal magazine, I pleaded for a stop to this public-private comparison. What is most insidious about this private sector envy like the one in your post is that it feeds the false notion that government cannot do anything right, and that public employees — and public service — are somehow inept. It infers that somehow the problems agencies face are intractable… that government cannot — and does not — change… and that somehow government performance and government innovation are oxymorons.

To be blunt, it is unfair.

And even beyond that, it does something that I know you abhor: It adds no value. It adds nothing to the discussion.

You raise important issues — ones faced by both the public and private sectors — at what point to you cut off a troubled system by making the determination that continuing would be throwing good money after bad. It is a tough decision to make.

But some of the troubled programs mentioned — the Department of Veterans Affair’s financial management system and FBI’s Sentential program — are complex.

In the end, the issues you are facing are not new. I’d point to Raines Rules, published in 1996 by then OMB Director Franklin Raines to get a handle on IT systems.That OMB memo, issued under the title, “Funding Information Systems Investments,” was quickly renamed Raines’ Rules. And it became a seminal document for guiding IT management. The rules issued guidance for complying with the Information Technology Management Reform Act, which eventually became part of the Clinger-Cohen Act. It essentially set the criteria for evaluating major information system investments — and they read as if they could have been issued today.

There are issues — and I think even feds will give you credit for working to fix problems.

Again, I’m not taking away from this initiative — and the work that you and your OMB management team are doing is very important. But the slams against government are unwarranted — and unnecessary. That rhetoric simply is… not helpful, to be kind.

Sincerely,

Christopher J. Dorobek

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Written by cdorobek

June 29, 2010 at 7:11 PM

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