Focusing on six words: Helping government do its job better

Archive for August 24th, 2009

DorobekInsider: Leadership or management — that is the question?

leave a comment »

Does the government need leadership? Or better management? And where should the focus be?

I write a monthly column in AFCEA’s Signal magazine. My column in the August issue is headlined:

Trite But True: It All Comes Down to Leadership
Good leadership is transformational and is different from management

In the column, I note that I did a search for books about leadership, and it probably will not surprise anyone that my search came up with 348,433 hits. So on one level, we understand it—leadership is important. And I went on to tell the story about EPA’s Jeremy Ames, who did the first government open contest — in this case, for people who created a public service announcement around radon gas. (See the videos from here.) And I noted in the column that the great thing about the videos is that then EPA CIO Molly O’Neill and then EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock didn’t know it was going on. My conclusion was that was a demonstration of transformation at EPA — the fact that people felt safe enough to try something out that could change the way the organization does business — it seems very powerful to me.

As I said, you can read the full column here.

Alan Balutis [PDF bio], the director and distinguished fellow for Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, sent me a note soon after that column was published in which he asked if he could take exception to my column. I told him I was thrilled that the column spurred a discussion — and, in fact, we will start that discussion — Allan gets to disagree with me publicly Tuesday at 10a ET on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Government IT Solutions Spotlight… and in the October issue of Signal magazine.

UPDATE: Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Government IT Solutions Spotlight program with Balutis is now posted online. You can hear the conversation here.

His arguement: There is way too much focus on leadership — and not nearly enough focus on management. To that end, Balutis did an search about management and found 105,818 hits – less than a third of those on leadership.

As government programs and agencies today have become more complex, the ability to make them work has diminished. As we review the government landscape today, it is littered with failures: FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the Food and Drug Administration’s inability to stop dangerous foods from reaching dining tables, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s not keeping lead-painted toys out of stores, the collapse of financial markets, outrageous Ponzi schemes, and on and on. Are these failures of leadership? There might be an element of that. But, more likely, they are failures of management; they are failures to execute.

We’ll continue this conversation tomorrow morning, and while I don’t think Balutis’s point necessarily distracts from the need for good leadership, it doesn’t mean that management isn’t absoluteely essential — and perhaps way too overlooked.

Written by cdorobek

August 24, 2009 at 1:34 PM

DorobekInsider: The VA IG reports — what are the next steps? We ask government IT veterans

leave a comment »

Late last week, we told you about two scathing reports from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office. And they are still the buzz around town.

You can download PDF of the two reports for yourself here:

* Administrative Investigation Misuse of Position, Abuse of Authority, and Prohibited Personnel Practices Office of Information & Technology [August 2009, PDF]

* Administrative Investigation Nepotism, Abuse of Authority, Misuse of Position, Improper Hiring, and Improperly Administered Awards, OI&T [August 2009, PDF]

Friday on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, we spoke with Gautham Nagesh is a reporter for Government Executive and Nextgov, who has been reporting on this story. Hear our conversation here.

The questions now: What will be the ripple effects? (There are almost always unintended consequences that result from these kinds of events.)

As I mentioned last week, the current VA CIO Roger Baker was not involved in any way. In fact, he didn’t come on board until months after these events had happened. But they will likely have a significant impact on his agenda for the VA IT shop.

One of the big concerns that people are talking about are the sheer number of names in these reports. I haven’t sat down to count them, but… there are more then a dozen names redacted from these reports. Does that mean that these actions, if true, were pervasive through VA?

Baker has made a real effort to transform Earlier this year, of course, Baker put a hold on 45 IT projects because they were behind schedule or over budget — they were troubled. It is unclear if it was going to work yet. There have been other attempts to transform VA’s IT shop — and they have often been characterized by two steps forward, followed by one step back.

One government IT veteran I was talking to over the weekend said Baker could actually turn this into his advantage — this could further his case that change is necessary.

And Baker is perhaps uniquely qualified to deal with these issues having served as the former Commerce Department CIO.

And Nextgov’s Nagesh posts a response from VA:

A VA spokesman issued the following statement about the reports: “VA is aware of the findings detailed in the OIG reports. VA expects our employees to set the highest levels of personal and professional conduct; therefore, we are extremely concerned by the descriptions of alleged improper conduct by VA staff. The department is aggressively pursuing a thorough review of the situation and will continue to work with the appropriate authorities. VA does not condone misconduct by its employees and will take the appropriate corrective action for those who violate VA policy.

I have asked some of the best government IT minds for their advice to VA — and to Baker. The only caveat was that I would not identify them so they could speak their minds freely.

Here are some of what they said…

* Verify that the facts in the report are accurate. If so, then start making reassignments and bring in a new team.

* It is a tough call – but fair and even-handed treatment is necessary. Generally the IG recommendations are reasonable – but some of this behavior costs the taxpayers plenty and did nothing to benefit the Veteran. It seems Mr. Baker concurred with the IG recommendations and we will have to wait and see what the final decisions are. It is noteworthy that the “pat” answer includes the phrase “General Counsel”. The IG never made a statement about referral to Justice – but in my experience that is usually not written down or part of the printed file. Some of these issues I would imagine are referral-able.

If nothing else those that are SES’ers should be thrown from the corp – to not do so is to sully the ranks of all SES’ers. That corp of gov execs should be beyond reproach. Speed will be of no importance here – this will linger until the press goes on to other things!

* They have to deal with the personnel aspects and demonstrate they have taken steps to correct the conditions that got them to this end. [Some of these situations were] well known in the halls of VA and no one took action…

In general VA is a Peyton Place of this sort of thing — people with new found power want to use it….

The temptation will be to bring in new leadership to clean up the mess. I have doubts that will work. Remember [former CIO Robert] Howard was brought in to clean up other messes. The culture there tends to try to take dramatic short term actions to fix long term cultural problems. While there looks like change is happening, the organization yawns and watches. At the first misstep of the new leadership, the calls to the IG, Hill, and the Press start. For
some reason new leaders fall for the routine…

Roger Baker must take action with the full support of his CHCO, his General Counsel and his leadership. It should also be said that he must not fall victim to the same trap. Power must be used judiciously but action needs to be taken nonetheless. He now must watch every action to avoid the next rounds of calls to the IG. This means every use of government property, every appearance of impropriety, every contract action, every trip to warm climates, and every appearance of favoritism must be managed and avoided. Roger is dealing with the fallout as well.

* VA is so screwed up, it’s hard to say whether the subjects of the IG reports are guilty as charged, or are just scapegoats for the misdeeds of others (or both!).

When things like this happen, VA’s typical response is to deny everything, hunker down, and wait for the storm to blow over.   That has worked so well over the years that the organization seems to have a culture of institutionalized incompetence.   It takes strong leadership to do anything over there, and even then, you can only do so much.

Written by cdorobek

August 24, 2009 at 7:36 AM