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Leaner, process-driven feds turn to IT

Customer service, continuous process improvement and value-based contracting are high priorities to the federal government. Recent cutbacks, Vice President Gore's National Performance Review initiative, and the creation of the post of chief information officer within federal agencies have resulted in significant cultural changes. Government procurement practices are starting to look increasingly like their commercial marketplace counterparts.

Efforts by the National Performance Review to make government more efficient have been channeled primarily through the Clinger-Cohen Act and Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). The former forces agencies to examine their business process before committing themselves to IT solutions, while the latter requires that most federal departments and independent agencies develop strategic plans, annual performance plans and supporting reports for submission to the Office of Management and Budget and the Congress.

Federal agency CIOs are looking at alternatives and for cheaper, more efficient ways to provide services. According to a recent survey conducted among federal government CIOs on their approach to business process re-engineering, 85% had either used or considered outsourcing. Over 50% had considered privatization, and 54% had used or considered franchising as an alternative. Examples of government services cited for outsourcing and franchising included call center operations, mainframe computing, financial management systems, information technology center and photo imaging services. Although business process re-engineering has come to mean different things to different people, it is still seen as an essential first step before adopting new IT systems. At least 58% of CIOs responding to the survey indicated that between one and 10 BPR efforts are underway in their agencies. And 69% indicated a strong commitment to process re-engineering.

Asked to identify those systems areas that were targeted for IT solutions, the CIO survey most frequently named core programs--for example, taxpayer services, C3I--programs considered to be central to the functioning of the agency.

A cost-conscious, process-driven government has resulted in significant shifts in the way in which IT solutions are delivered. First, the government is increasingly looking at commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products. It is common to look at what's available as packaged software before considering a "build" decision. Systems integrators and service providers are expected to have a methodology to determine requirements, evaluate COTS products and then make unbiased recommendations on what might be an appropriate mix of buy-and-build strategies. The challenge lies in systems integrators remaining unbiased in the process. Whereas the commercial world is driven by partnerships and leveraging skills built over time around specific platform products, the government expects those service providers to evaluate potential solutions in absolute terms.

Second, the negative reactions caused by very large, visible projects that failed have made the government adopt strict quality assurance standards. Several agencies require software service providers to be certified to at least level 2 of the Capability Maturity Model. That model developed by the Software Engineering Institute, a federally funded research and development center operated by Carnegie Mellon University (www.sei.cmu.edu), offers engineering disciplines for software development. The Capability Maturity Model is a method for comparing materials for software engineering compliance and a guideline for process improvement.

Finally, once again, like their commercial counterparts, federal agency CIOs are increasingly looking at "best practices" and seeking to adapt them in their own areas. If something works in agency "x" why not in agency "y"? Paper-intensive processes such as the declassification of documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have several technology and processing aspects that are common to all agencies.

No discussion of IT solutions can be complete without mentioning the impact of the Internet and its use. The federal arena is no exception. Several initiatives to comply with the Paper Reduction Act have led to experimentation with paperless contracting processes. Several solutions are examining the use of common document formats, wide area workflow, security and authentication and electronic bill presentment. Those are just some of the government solutions and changes that are exciting from an IT perspective but more so from the way in which government can be expected to provide customer service to its citizens.

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