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Ideas on Modernizing Government


Last month, the White House held a Forum on the theme of Modernizing Government. The event was an opportunity to bring private sector and federal Government leaders together in a discussion about using technology to streamline Government operations, improve customer service, and maximize returns on information technology investments.

The idea was to gain an insight into how CEOs and CIOs from the private sector utilize technology, and whether any of their best practices can be shared and implemented within Government. More than 50 leading CEOs attended the forum, bringing their ideas for how the Government can use technology to save money and improve performance.

Peter Orszag (OMB Director) spoke about how the Government needs to ensure IT is focused on delivering services in the most efficient and cost effective manner possible. Technology should be leveraged to close the productivity gap between the Government and private sector:

The productivity gap between the government and private sector is substantial, and the longer we allow it to persist, the larger it becomes. That’s why we’re committed to a new business model for government, where technology and information systems enhance efficiency and where funds are invested in initiatives that work and not on outmoded services that don’t.

The President then spoke about how the technology revolution that has transformed our society over the past two decades, has yet to reach many parts of Government. He spoke about how kids often have better technology in their bedrooms than that available to Government workers. The Patent office was mentioned as an example of how technology is often not utilised effectively:

[…]Believe it or not, in our patent office — now, this is embarrassing — this is an institution responsible for protecting and promoting innovation — our patent office receives more than 80 percent of patent applications electronically, then manually prints them out, scans them, and enters them into an outdated case management system.  This is one of the reasons why the average processing time for a patent is roughly three years.  Imminently solvable; hasn’t been solved yet.

Even worse, too often, when we’ve attempted to update or replace outdated technology, we end up spending exorbitant sums of money on technologies that don’t meet our needs — or that took so long to implement that they were obsolete before we even started using them.

The President went on to mention the IT Dashboard as an example of how technology can be used to make Government projects more transparent and accountable.

It’s also why we introduced our IT Dashboard at usaspending.gov.  Here’s a website, which I’ve personally reviewed, where the American people can monitor every IT project in the federal government.  If a project is over budget, or behind schedule, this site tells you that, and by how much — and it provides the name, the email and the phone number of the person responsible.  To date, the site has gotten 78 million hits.  We’ve already terminated a number of projects that weren’t performing — and going forward, we won’t hesitate to cut more and then take that money and reinvest it in someplace that’s actually going to make a difference.

Breakout sessions

The event consisted of 5 different breakout sessions in which the private sector shared best practice lessons on customer service, streamlining operations, and how to affect change through large IT transformation projects.

The closing session focused on gathering the ideas from the different groups, and outlining how the process of taking these ideas forward within Government Departments and Agencies.

The Whitehouse collated some of the ideas originating from the different forums. These include:

  • Senior management must continue to monitor progress through a project’s lifecycle.  If the boss starts every meeting by asking about a project, that gets noticed.
  • Detailed measurement and transparency of results can help focus efforts.  What gets measured gets done, especially when it’s shared publicly. – The IT and Open Government dashboards are good examples. The 2011 budget also includes $50 in funding for a new project evaluation system, called TechStat, which cancels, halts or overhauls underperforming IT projects.
  • There is a critical need for standardization (software, data centers).  Focus for this must be from the top since functional teams and business units will not want it. – GSA’s Apps.gov and Cloud computing pilots such as Nebula trying to do this
  • Organizations can use transparency to create a culture of service, both by committing to better service publicly and by sharing customer feedback openly to boost accountability.
  • The best way to reduce customer dissatisfaction is to focus on ease of interacting with you.  Equip your customer service staff with tools to solve customer problems, and empower them to make decisions that will reduce customer effort, even if occasionally that results in a bit of waste.
  • Break big projects into small chunks – no longer than 12-18 months.  If a project takes longer to complete, ROI decreases and obsolescence becomes an issue. Successes along the way help build momentum and continued focus.
  • Be wary of costly customization. Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions are often sufficient. Common solutions can be used to serve diverse needs of different business units.

Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients has written a more detailed a follow-up on the ideas presented and is now seeking more on these from the private sector. General Services Administration CIO Casey Coleman also wrote up her comments on the ROI session, with the overall thesis appearing to be: Keep projects simple, clear, iterative, focused and driven by the business strategy.

Many of the suggestions outlined in the various sessions are already in evident in various areas of Government. The focus on transparency and feedback is already embedded in the Open Government Directive and can be seen in the public feedback the initiative has already generated.

The standardization of software and data centers etc. was mentioned in the recent 2011 budget as a means of cutting costs and improving IT efficiency:

Under the leadership of the Federal Chief Information Officer, the Administration is continuing its efforts to close the gap in effective technology use between the private and public sectors. Specifically, the Administration will continue to roll out less intensive and less expensive cloud-computing technologies; reduce the number and cost of Federal data centers; and work with agencies to reduce the time and effort required to acquire IT, improve the alignment of technology acquisitions with agency needs, and hold providers of IT goods and services accountable for their performance.

[…]Adoption of a cloud computing model is a major part of the strategy to achieve efficient and effective IT. After evaluation in 2010, agencies will deploy cloud computing solutions across the Government to improve the delivery of IT services

IT research firm Government Insights has noted how the budget request focuses on ways to cut information technology costs through consolidation and modernization efforts that will increase efficiency. The fiscal 2011 budget submitted to Congress last week includes $79.4 billion in IT spending across all agencies, a a 1.2 percent increase from the White House’s fiscal 2010 IT budget.

The budget provides Vivek Kundra with a $35 million fund to set up innovative tech pilot projects, including projects using cloud computing. There are many fans of cloud computing within the federal Government, and it’s seen as a means of significantly reducing costs and improving service agility.

Elephant in the room

Overall, many ideas outlined at the forum are already being implemented by the administration, or at least being implemented in other areas of Government. The issues around government contracting – while mentioned by Peter Orszag in opening the session – were not explicitly discussed. Many private sector organisations have a wealth of experience in contracting and outsourcing IT and it would have been useful to hear their experiences in this area; from writing Request For Proposals to judging the efficiency of contractors. This huge area, however, was conspicuous by its absence, especially in the Return On Investment session.

Matthew Burton’s upcoming Chapter for O’Reilly’s new Open Government book, details some of the issues around how “government has become almost completely dependent upon contractors for information technology (IT)”.  He outlines the issues around how the typical IT project evolves, with the conclusion that there are two faults that doom the contracting process to failure. These are:

  1. The development process [in Government] is vastly different from that of today’s most popular software. Modern web applications are persistently watching their users and adjusting their code to make it faster and more user-friendly. Adventurous users can begin using these applications before they’re even finished, giving the developers invaluable insight into their users’ preferences. Without this constant feedback, the developers risk spending years on a product in private, only to reveal it to the public and find that nobody wants to use it.
  2. Second, the paperwork required to simply start coding takes time and money. So, to even consider solutions, the problem has to be severe enough to justify months of bureaucracy. Why go through all that trouble just for a problem that would take a week to solve? The logic makes the taxpayer ill: the bureaucracy actually wants high price tags. The result is an organization full of easy problems that get no attention until they are big, expensive, and ready to boil over.

He does, however, outline Apps for Democracy and BRIDGE as welcome departures from traditional contract-based software development.  Nevertheless, he suggests the development of a Developer Corps – similar to Peace Corps and Teach For America – but taking a leaf out of Code for America, as an means of bringing Government IT into the Internet age.

The roadmap for Modernizing Government should take such innovative initiatives into account. Vivek Kundra, knows the impact citizen developers can make when they are given a platform upon which to work. It’s not enough, however, to keep such talent at arms length from Government with only a data.gov as the Citizen to-Government interface. Instead, a mechanism should be developed to bring this energy and experience into Government IT to reshape it into a more citizen centric experience.


White House blog post on Ideas from the Forum.

{ 1 comment… add one }
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