Fixing Processes, Counting Heads
All businesses have their share of IT disasters, but many federal projects seem engineered to go bad from the start. The GAO's Powner points to the lack of executive oversight and accountability as a fundamental difference between the federal government and the corporate sphere.
"In the private sector, there are disincentives for not performing, but they aren't any in the public sector," he says. Federal bureaucrats don't have the threat of job loss hanging over their heads, should they bungle an IT contract.
Also, corporations charge a program manager to oversee large IT investments; the federal government doesn't. "Historically, government doesn't have certified program managers," Powner says. "Qualified program managers and executives are accountable. When you have executives who are holding meetings, that can drive program management."
There has been some progress after a series of high- profile--and high-cost--federal horror stories. For example, after attempting to modernize its tax processing and database system, the Internal Revenue Service has bolstered its requirements-setting process. In an attempt to mimic executive oversight, the IRS also established a sophisticated governance structure in which managers meet monthly or quarterly to oversee business units involved in the ongoing upgrades.
Another case in point is the Department of Defense, which in an effort to more closely oversee its IT contractors, established an earned-value management program to measure the value, cost, schedule and functionality of IT deliverables. The program is meant to shine a light on a common technique used to mask scheduled problems, whereby a contractor will say it's on schedule, yet defer demonstrating functionality.
Measures like these come too late for the Census Bureau's handheld initiative. Yet the Constitution mandates a census every 10 years. So what happens now?
The bureau will do what it can with the handheld devices it has, says Commerce Secretary Gutierrez. After that, it will rely on the old standby: paper. The mobile computers will be used to initially canvas addresses--stage one of the census. Here, the device's GPS tie-in will be particularly helpful.
People who don't respond will be tracked down during a second-stage canvassing, but handhelds won't be used during this phase. "Historically, when people don't respond, you knock on doors and send them information, and that won't be done with handhelds," says the GAO's Powner.
Though bringing in manual methods this late in the game will be a hassle for the bureau, the scramble is doable. "They're going to use the same strategy they used in the past, because they know how to do it manually," Powner says. "That's how they justify this decision."