The Federal IT Papers–Part 1

I have seen a few administrations. The George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) really got the ball rolling quickly on Federal IT. I’m not a Republican, so you don’t know how hard it is for me to say that. But information technology is not a partisan issue. That administration put together the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) in a year and GAO was reporting on it a year later. That is really organized. The IT potion of that PMA was encapsulated in the “Quicksilver Initiatives.”

GAO chart book
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I’m not going to go into detail about these initiatives here. But my point is that this administration came in and was focused on getting some shit done. My purpose in writing this–I don’t even know what this is–thing is for the next administration to come in with the focus to get some shit done, and hopefully if you listen to what I am offering, work on the right shit.

In case you didn’t already realize this, but this document, book, blog, whatever it ends up becoming, isn’t written like your typical government white paper.2  I plan to use profanity when it makes sense because I want to make a point. We need to start being real. I have been here long enough to know how to say things politely. For example, I could say that, “Bureau CIO awards of separate contracts for commodity IT capabilities leads to sub-optimal decision-making.” I could very easily do that. But this is not that kind of document. Instead I will say that, “Bureau CIOs are stupid when they award separate contracts for commodity IT.” See? The meaning is exactly the same and there is absolutely no doubt how I feel about that issue.

Also I am not going to follow MLA types of formatting of footnotes and other conventions. So if you want formal footnotes and citations, please go read someone’s document who is getting paid to write it. I’m not getting paid to write this. I am writing it on my own time. My intent is to put the ideas on paper and substantiate them enough with some links that you can follow if you choose. I am not trying to write for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

If you are looking for cute little bites in 140 characters, this isn’t that kind of document. Also, there are tons of groups putting out tons of publications seeking to get the attention of the incoming administration. I am not diminishing any of those. I think they are good and you should read them and be aware (beware) of their ideas. I am writing this because I will tell you the things that they won’t say. I will tell you the things that they are afraid to say because it stirs up too much controversy. That’s another reason why I am not going to disclose who I am. I have no problem standing up for my ideas, but as a career civil servant, I need to be able to implement the decisions that have been made above my pay grade. This document is aimed at you people above my pay grade. Stop making dumb decisions and don’t make me implement dumb stuff. This is just my opinion, but I suspect that I speak for a lot of career Fed IT people on that one. These opinions are not sanctioned or sanitized. This is me being raw. They do represent truths that I have come to discover through meeting with people from many Federal agencies and from paying attention to IT programs in the Federal space.

So basically, the next time you want to send a bunch of jets out to California to go recruit the best and the brightest,3 stop, take a breath, and think about the impact of that move on the people who are here today, who have devoted their lives to delivering agency missions through the innovative use of technology. All of that United States Digital Service (USDS) stuff, what did it get you?4 What have you accomplished?5 You went out and recruited a bunch of people who just recruit a bunch more people and haven’t done much of anything because we have thousands of people recruiting thousands more. The thing that totally kills me is that agencies have removed all of the obstacles and roadblocks for these people. All of the stuff that typically makes projects go slow and bogs stuff down have been pushed to the side, and they still can’t get anything done. They can’t get shit done because doing stuff here is different than doing it in the Valley.

Here, we have things like procurement rules.6 Here you can’t just hire a person one year out of college and pay them the max 15. We have rules that must be followed, those are called laws, and they are more specific and prescriptive than the rules you followed when you were toiling in some start-up. But you know what makes me mad, so mad that I’m writing this instead of being lazy? It pisses me off because if we would have moved those same roadblocks for the career Federal IT people who were managing those programs, we would be much further along than if we had a whole bunch of USDS people who aren’t familiar with how the government works. Don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that the USDS is the root of all evil and that they are the reason everything is so screwed up. Rather, I am saying that if we would have applied some of that same effort removing obstacles for the career IT people who were already managing these programs, we would have achieved far greater success.

Think about my $6 million failure. My business stakeholders couldn’t agree, and I lacked the power to force them. But if I would have had just a small fraction of the influence we are giving to this USDS crowd, I would have been successful.

Let’s take a sec and think about how the USDS was born. It was created in the colossal explosion that was HealthCare.gov. That, by the way, was the perfect storm of bad project management. They had an arbitrary and capricious launch date, Oct. 1. There was no statutory requirement to launch then. We had just finished a summer of furloughs thanks to the sequester. And, on Oct. 1, and the two weeks thereafter, the government was shut down because Congress couldn’t approve a budget. But, let’s go ahead and launch on Oct. 1 anyway. So it goes horribly, right? And the response is the same response that we used in Afghanistan and Iraq to fight a war, we surged a bunch of people. A surge of troops can be effective in a military campaign, but I would argue that there is an inverse rule of project management that makes that a bad idea. Look at this from the perspective of lines of communication.

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