Why “Best Practices” Won’t Fix Federal IT

Federal Computer Week recently published my op-ed piece Why best practices won’t fix Federal IT. I’d be very interested in hearing from GovLoop members what they think of it.

The idea came from the “25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management” released by Vivek Kundra on December 10 of last year. No. 10 on that list was: “Launch a best practices collaboration platform.”

While I’m a big proponent of collaboration my reaction was that solving IT problems related to shrinking budgets would be better served by making it easier for IT staff to share information about problems and solutions directly, rather than by focusing on after-the-fact “best practices” procedures.

I think this has relevance to a variety of process improvement areas, not just IT. Siloing in many Federal agencies still reduces the potential for information sharing. This has both schedule and cost implications. Creating anorther “best practices” system can’t, by itself, overcome unwillingness to collaborate.

What do you think?

Dennis McDonald

Alexandria Virginia


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Agreed – I think it’s about real-time help. For project managers who are facing an issue, they need real-time help/assistance (best practices) – not another document. Would be awesome if there was a “phone a friend” line instead :0)

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

I also agree. Best practices sound good because who wouldn’t want to emulate the success of others. The problem that I found with best practices is that they are often not that well-documented, the glow of victory tends to mask the difficult journey to the best practice, and the success of best practices often depend on their home environment. There is nothing wrong with taking a successful practice from another agency but you should adapt it rather than blindly follow another’s best practice.

Comment on Steve’s idea: back when instant messaging was the rage, many developers kept their IM clients open so that we could easily ask a question to the group and receive a quick response. I suppose you could do the same with Twitter but it doesn’t seem to have the same immediacy as IM.

David Dejewski

Good post, Dennis. It’s good to think about this. What I like about the article is that it was written. Obviously, Vivid Kundra has stirred things up – hopefully for the better in the long run.

I like the idea of IT staffs collaborating directly. There’s a certain non-political honesty at this level of the organization, and a group of people who take pride in their work and honestly want to see the best product possible produced.

We’ve done some pretty exhaustive work with Programs and found the problems with the Programs we reviewed are rarely with the PM, the way they are managing – or with the techies who do the programing. The problems exist in the ecosystem that the PM has to work in. Serving 5 masters, dealing with scope creep, lack of cross communication or agreements, trying to hit a moving expectations target, changing objectives, lack of standards, layer upon layer of bureaucratic oversight… It consistently points back to a leadership issue. Not with PM leadership – they are middle management – but with the people the PM’s are beholden to.

Bluntly: until senior, main-stream leaders are able to modify their decision making behaviors relative to Information Technology portfolios, and analysts are able to modify the way they conduct due diligence in support of the decision making process (i.e. Getting relevant and accurate information to the decision making table when it is needed) problems such as duplication of effort, lack of interoperability, and programatic boondoggles will persist. My thoughts on this subject are covered more deeply in my GovLoop groups: Business Transformation, Way Out Of The Box, and in my Blog at http://DefenseBusinessTransformation.blogspot.com

David Dejewski

We’ve got a group that does as Bill Brantley suggests below using Twitter. They all follow one another and set themselves up as sort of a private group. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, but the result is Borg-like. All know what any one individual knows within seconds. They have been using it for maybe two years and really have it perfected.

David Dejewski

Bill, I will find out for you. Without too much stretching, I’m going to speculate that they set up their accounts, made their broadcasts private, then followed one another. Maybe send to their cell phones.

You might also be interested in looking at Chatter @ https://www.chatter.com/. It looks to me like they may have a similar, but maybe more polished solution for collaboration across work groups.

Of course, you and I are collaborating here. Thanks to GovLoop. 😉

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@David – Thanks for the tip on Chatter. It looks interesting although I was put off by the fact that the Black Eyed Peas use it. Still recovering from their awful Halftime Show. =:O

David Dejewski

Bill – I feel like we hijacked Dennis discussion a bit here, but I promised to follow up.
They are using a combination of private time lines, DM’s, hash tags to organize, and protocols (group business rules) to control workflow and security. I’m happy to share more specific details with you off line or in another forum of your choosing if you like.

I agree with you. I think the half time show audio system could have used a boost.


What do you think would be ideal version of Kundra’s #10 goal in his top 25 initiative

10. Launch a best practices collaboration platformWithin six months, the Federal CIO Council will develop a collaboration portal to exchange best practices, case studies, and allow for real-time problem solving . To institutionalize this best practice sharing, agency PMs will submit post-implementation reviews of their major program deliveries to the portal .These reviews will populate a searchable database of synthesized and codified program management best practices that all PMs can access


David – was talking to a fed the other day whose division oversee about 50+ projects and he said his biggest issue was all the reporting requirements. I kind of agree and deals with your comment below

Serving 5 masters, dealing with scope creep, lack of cross communication or agreements, trying to hit a moving expectations target, changing objectives, lack of standards, layer upon layer of bureaucratic oversight

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@GovLoop – Referring to your question about Kundra’s #10 goal:

It is still a good idea but I would focus more on the collaboration aspect over the searchable best practices database. I am assuming that the best practices submissions will follow a template to make the codification easier. What would be a valuable addition is an archive of video briefings where trained debriefers would interview the project managers on the lessons learned from their projects. A good model to follow is the Army’s Lessons Learned process.

Dennis McDonald

Betchacookie most people will use the documentation to locate the expert to contact. I say, cut out that step and go directly to a system that helps people locate and communicate with the people who have the expertise.


@Bill – love Nancy’s work

How about having a volunteer (or paid) core of folks whose whole job was to be a resource (a call a friend) for project managers? Think about all the great project managers starting to retire. Thinking of my father – a retired project manager from federal government – I’m sure he’d sign up to help out for a block (half a day on Thursdays or something like that)

Richard Schrader

Best Practices CAN fix Federal IT (with a caveat).
Millions of dollars are earnestly spent on worthwhile reviews of costly processes in every agency. Lean Six Sigma, TQM and all the various names for process review mean well. They tend to deliver honest results and, in some cases, parts of the recommendations actually get implemented.
The problem is that rarely is a process improvement automated to enforce the improvement. And there are reasons for that. But first, if you do not automate the process improvement, then people have a tendency to slowly drift away from the intended improvement. Push back, short cuts, do more with less; all cause the improvement to be skewed in short order.
So why not automate the process improvement? There are many reasons, some good, some not so good. The biggest problem is not funding. Why? Traditionally people look at an automation project from the rip and replace view. You ask IT and IT says yes I can do that with 10 million lines of codes in 18 months. Of course that is expensive. Until IT understands and embraces newer technologies such as BPM, that will continue.
Those federal agencies that have embraced BPM no longer look at producing monstrous systems. They understand that you can take part of a process, automate it, and then evolve it. You cannot do that with traditional approaches to IT solutions.
BPM is far less expensive and can deliver results in half the time, sometimes sooner. BPM is extremely flexible. It can be configured in a cloud and then picked up and put into production behind a firewall. BPM is mobile. Leading BPM vendors have the functionality available today to monitor, collaborate and take action all from mobile devices.
Many will say that a best practice at one agency “is different than they way we do it”. OK. That is another reason for BPM. BPM is flexible and changes can be made quickly to adapt to changing or different situations. Very little coding is needed, if any.

Dennis McDonald

There are a variety of systems that simplify messaging by making presence information available, thus reducing reliance on email and phone. Combining presence notification with some type of expertise information that announces to a group both availability and expertise might also be helpful, though how to combine expertise granularity with reputation without having to build and maintain some sort of background mechanism that overcomes problems with voting based reputation systems seems a challenge. I’m back to thinking that reducing barriers to establishing real relationships with experts located in other organizations might by itself be a cost effective solution.