Programmatic execution is the name of the game for the government right now; getting the project done, over the line, finished, up and running. Perhaps that’s because some signature projects have had less than optimal operation, regardless of how worthy the goal. Another contributing factor might be that with the end of the fiscal year looming, agency managers are uncertain about when 2011 appropriations work will be finished — it certainly won’t be by Sept. 30.
Remember the Cash For Clunkers program in 2009? Economists are still debating its economic effects. In fact it is the subject of a surprising amount of scholarship over its benefits and drawbacks. But from a purely operation standpoint, it nearly collapsed under a sudden workload for the Transportation Department in closing the paperwork loop so that auto dealers could get their checks from the government.
Some recent developments show a bureaucracy working hard to get past the operational snafus that can ensnare a program, hurting credibility.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill caused application backlogs for the Veteran Affairs Department that it spent a year fixing. At the beginning of 2010 the VA had an estimated 48,000 people waiting for their educational benefits to come through. At a press briefing earlier this month, VA CIO Roger Baker said that an automated system was finally in place to enable the processing of 10,000 GI Bill claims per day, versus 2,000 a year ago.
The execution push can have a profound effect on contractors. VA appears to be so concerned with program execution that it is soliciting back-up contracts in case an already-awarded vendor doesn’t come through. Such is the case, first reported by NextGov for another program, that of Agent Orange benefits.
Briefly, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki finalized a long-building VA policy to award benefits to all Vietnam veterans who suffer from any of a list of diseases presumed to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The infamous herbicide was sprayed over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in a program called Operation Ranch Hand. In July, VA awarded IBM a contract to build an Agent Orange benefits processing system. And earlier this month, it issued a solicitation for a second contractor. The description calls for a 30-day window to deliver the system once awarded, and it will be a firm, fixed-price contact. Bids were due last Friday.
VA has processed 90,000 Agent Orange claims so far, and another 150,000 are expected.
Also last week, the Housing and Urban Affairs Department launched a new program it announced back in March to help homeowners who are still able to make their house payments but whose houses are worth less than the principal they owe on their mortgages. The program, called short refinance, gets lien holders or mortgage bundlers to agree to a smaller equity owed by the individual homeowner, and then the loan is guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration, which is in turn backed up by Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) dollars.
HUD deputy commissioner Vicki Bott stressed to me the operational complexity of the program, and how HUD, working with its component FHA and with companies to whom HUD delegates the handling of its lending programs, is trying hard to ensure operation success. Short ReFi is just complicated, involving HUD, FHA, lenders, loan consolidators, lien holders and homeowners themselves.
Looking around, you see operational execution challenges all over the place. Often, they occur in programs that have a governmentwide component. Three cases in point:
- At the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the long-in-process Electronic Records Archive project is working, but few other government agencies are using it to upload and store their electronic documents. As a result, it made the list of high-priority projects compiled recently by the Office of Management and Budget. In an August statement, Archivist David Ferriero said, “Indeed the ERA is at risk if we build it and agencies don’t use it.”
- The horses haven’t been drinking lavishly at the trough of the General Services Administration’s Networx telecommunications program. And now, GSA has given agencies yet another year to complete their plans for transitioning to Networx. That’s the plans, not the actual transitions, and it is well past the intended expiration date of current telecom contracts under the FTS 2001 program.
- Treasury is piloting a program to have financial institutions offer basic, low-cost financial products to unbanked Americans to low and moderate income people. The government itself will use the accounts to deliver benefits electronically. This is another example of an ambitious and multi-party project for execution that will be important.
A report last year from Booz Allen Hamilton tried to distill the essence of how leaders can effect change in a federal agency. One component of success is use of metrics, so perhaps the dashboards that are sprouting at agencies across the government will enable more assurance that projects started get done on time and work well.
And for OMB’s latest view of how it thinks it and the agencies it oversees are doing in the transparency, IT, performance metrics and other management initiatives, check out this memo from Chief Performance Officer Jeff Zients (with thanks to Federal News Radio colleague Chris Dorobek for obtaining the memo).