Federal information technology managers — often cited for poor execution of procurement practices — now have some project role models to follow for successfully managing IT investments. The federal General Accountability Office has issued a report on seven case studies of successful government IT procurement projects.
GAO initiated the report in response to a request from Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Tom Carper, D-Del., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., who serve on committees that monitor federal IT investments. As part of their ongoing effort to improve IT management, the senators asked GAO to identify federal IT investments that were, or are, being successfully acquired, and the critical factors leading to the successful acquisition of these investments.
After reviewing GAO’s findings, Carper said the report “provides the federal government with valuable guidance on how we can achieve better results for less money when it comes to our information technology portfolio.”
In its analysis, GAO identified several key elements that contributed to the successful IT acquisitions. While these factors are important for government managers, they are also significant for vendors to incorporate in their responses to federal contract solicitations and in working with federal agencies at all stages of the IT acquisition process. Among the success factors GAO found were these:
- IT program officials were actively engaged with “stakeholders”
- End users and stakeholders were involved in the development IT requirements
- Government and contractor staff remained consistent and stable
- IT and project managers maintained regular communication with the prime contractor
In addition, GAO noted that successful acquisitions also involved the prioritization of IT requirements by program staff; sufficient funding of the project; program staff with the necessary knowledge and skills; senior department and agency executives support; and the participation of end users in testing prior to formal acceptance.
The acquisition value of the seven projects that GAO analyzed ranged from US$6.5 million to $505.6 million, but the success factors were common regardless of the scope of the venture. The projects involved a wide range of IT applications, including a Census Bureau system for collecting and integrating responses from forms and telephone interviews; a Defense Department logistics operation that provides supplies and information for military missions; an Energy Department software system used in building, restoring or dismantling nuclear weapon components; and a Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) project used for checking land traveler and vehicle entry to the U.S.
Also included were a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) program for providing short-term weather data from a variety of sources for use by controllers and pilots; a modernized Treasury Department customer management program for taxpayer accounts; and a Veterans Affairs project featuring electronic records for tracking employee health.
No Silver Bullet
The factors identified by GAO mirrored many of the 25 IT procurement and management reforms adopted by OMB for federal agencies in December 2010. However, most of the projects preceded the launch of the reform plan.
“The 25 point plan did not introduce any really new methods, but it highlighted the factors that contribute to successful IT procurement,” David Powner, director of information technology management issues at GAO, told CRM Buyer. “There is no silver bullet formula here. It’s more of diligently implementing already known procedures.”
One of the IT reform ideas was to acquire IT capabilities on an incremental, or modular, basis.
“Each of the seven projects utilized the incremental approach in one way or another, with some of them utilizing the ‘agile’ software model,” Powner said. “That’s different from many past projects, where the acquisition featured a massive one-shot system, which often took years to implement and wound up with cost overruns and at the end an unworkable project.”
The agile software model features a step-by-step approach with adjustments made at each step and often includes a more collaborative relationship between IT staff, agency users and contractors. Collaboration, in fact, was a major element of all projects and not just with a particular aspect of a project, such as software.
All seven projects involved close cooperation between end users — the people who would eventually operate the project, such as pilots and air controllers in the FAA case — and the IT program staff. In addition, each project brought in stakeholders — persons who were not end users but who had some stake in the project, such as agency attorneys in the case of the border control project.
“Officials from all seven selected investments cited active engagement with program stakeholders — individuals or groups, including, in some cases, end users — with an interest in the success of the acquisition, as a critical factor to the success of those investments,” GAO says in the report.
“Relevant industry guidance recognizes the importance of eliciting end user needs and involving stakeholders in requirements development. When stakeholders and end users communicate their requirements throughout the project life cycle, the resulting system is more likely to perform as intended in the end user’s environment,” GAO said.
Contractor Collaboration Needed for Success
For IT vendors, several of the successful projects involved close contact with contractors and, to the degree possible, the development of partnership relationships with them.
“The GAO report stressed that good communication was essential at all levels. That includes getting the requirements right in communicating with the users and clarifying the requirements with the contractor,” Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president of the Professional Services Council, told CRM Buyer. “There will always be challenges in dealing with contractors, but that doesn’t mean agencies should shut off all contact with them.”
GAO cited a few examples of the importance of developing a rapport between IT contractors and agency managers:
- Census Bureau officials reported to GAO that the agency’s program management office collaborated extensively with stakeholders and the vendor to develop contract requirements. “Program management office personnel, contractor staff, and the stakeholders all worked together to analyze the requirements in order to ensure they were understood, unique, and verifiable.”
- Customs and Border Patrol officials stated that during the deployment of the travel entry technology at ports of entry, the program management office held daily conference calls with the contractor to ensure proper coordination and the rapid resolution of problems. For example, during deployment at one site it was determined that the electric system at the facility was not adequate. The problem was quickly identified, responsibility was assigned, and the issue was quickly resolved.
- Both Veterans Affairs and Census officials stated that ensuring a positive, non-adversarial relationship between the prime contractor and the program management office was critical to the success of the investment. “Census officials noted that both the government and the contractor staff recognized that the only way for the program to succeed was for both parties to succeed,” GAO reported.
“GAO is more often associated with producing reports that call attention to shortfalls in government,” said Chvotkin. “This report has a more positive tone, and I think it documents that it’s very possible to achieve success in IT procurement at the federal level.”