The Risk of IT Mandates: A Cautionary Tale from the U.S. Government

by Dave Hannon

June 28, 2011

By Dave Hannon


When the White House first appointed a Federal CIO in 2009, many IT market watchers thought “Hmm, that sounds like one step towards emulating how a successful business manages IT.” And when Federal CIO Vivek Kundra began meeting with IT industry leaders to discuss cloud computing and later released a 25-point IT transformation plan for the U.S. government including a major data center consolidation project, I’ll admit I  really started to think some corporate IT strategy was sinking in down there in Washington and even praised some of Kundra's efforts.

Well, apparently, in addition to borrowing from corporate IT’s best practices, the Feds are also emulating some of the most common mistakes made in the IT business.

After two years in the post and only months after laun ching a major IT transformation project, Kundra announced he’s bailing out for a fellowship at Harvard. Apparently, when his budgets were slashed and some of his initiatives were cut back, his first move – almost literally – was to accept a joint fellowship at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Without Kundra’s executive sponsorship these projects are at serious risk. Let’s be frank – we all know incoming executives never seem quite as jazzed to drive a mandate their predecessor set, and who can blame them? They want to launch their own “save the organization” campaign.

But beyond his leaving in the midst of a major initiative that just lost a bunch of its funding, there are signs that the data center consolidation project he launched has lacked one key component from the start –  a savings-tracking component at the ground level. This week, a study was released showing that while government IT centers are in fact working on the data center consolidation as instructed, they are not tracking the savings generated by the project. According to the study from MeriTalk only about 23% of Federal IT decision makers say their IT departments can track full data center consolidation savings and 67% do not even know the average kilowatts per rack el ectricity usage across their data centers, so the couldn’t track the savings if they wanted to.  

And without visibility into the savings – and how that savings may be reinvested – the folks working on the project really don’t have a lot of reason to put in the extra effort. Only 42% of Federal IT decision makers feel their IT departments have an incentive to achieve data center savings and I’m pretty sure those numbers were gathered prior to Kundra’s announcement. In short, they’re working on this project because their boss, who himself is bailing on the project, told them to. Not because they were shown a clear business case or how their organization would benefit from the result.

But this isn’t just a Fed-bashing gripefest. There are lessons here. I’ll point a couple out, but I’m guessing you are way ahead of me and have some ideas of your own.

First, issuing mandates and directives without educating workers properly on the reasons behind is not effective for a very broad or long-term transformation. It’s the executive equivalent of “because I said so,” isn’t it? It’s intimidation without education. And intimidation does not get people invested in projects, it scares them into doing the bare minimum to keep their jobs or meet the goals of the mandate.

Secondly, a project plan is not complete until you have a foolproof way to measure progress and track savings throughout the course of the plan. That’s not only a good way to prove IT’s value to the finance team at the end of the project, but also helps keep project teams focused on short- and medium-term goals. When they see the savings generated after the first quarter’s effort, they can at least understand how their personal efforts and sacrifices have benefited the organization.

Lastly, if you’re an IT executive in the midst of creating a major initiative, be sure to bite off only what your budgets can chew. Scalability is important. You should have a plan for what to do if your budgets get cut. Because they very well might in this economy, and if they do, I’m not sure you’ll have the same fellowship waiting for you that Kundra had.

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