Can The Federal Government Innovate IT Buying? Yes, If…

On March 27, 2015, OMB posted a job announcement for the first-ever Information Technology Category Manager (https://www.usajobs.gov/GetJob/ViewDetails/398603900). Category management is the Federal Government’s approach to rationalizing and streamlining acquisitions (http://gsablogs.gsa.gov/gsablog/2014/04/09/the-future-fas-categorically-the-right-thing-to-do-for-taxpayers/). The IT Category Manager (ITCM) will be responsible for managing IT acquisition as a category, for the first time.

Kudos to OMB, OFPP, the Federal CIO, GSA, and others for getting this far. Considerable effort goes into procuring IT faster, smarter, and cheaper, and an IT category and category manager are real steps toward that end. If innovation is doing something different to get a better outcome for the customer, this is an example of Federal Government innovation.

But the approach and position are just the start. The ITCM must carry innovation forward by how they implement the category. And the Federal CIO and the OFPP Administrator – to whom the ITCM jointly reports – must maintain an innovation mindset to help the ITCM do business differently across the government.

Reading the job posting, the innovation could be at risk.

The ITCM’s duties are highly operational. Only one of six enumerated duties supports innovation – developing a government-wide category management strategy for IT. The other five, plus additional responsibilities and the description of successful performance, are operational – executing strategy, supporting human capital development, improving the efficiency of the Federal marketplace, applying best practices, reducing costs, etc.

While these are appropriate performance objectives for an established job, and very reasonable business objectives, they’re not the right focus for the ITCM in years one and two – the time period noted in the posting. If the ITCM is to do something different (category management) to get better results (cost savings, efficient consumption of goods and services, better performance management, etc.), he or she will need to learn how to do that. Learning should be the focus for a new position, performing new duties, in the hopes of changing something as big as buying IT for the Federal Government.

The ITCM will need time to figure out what works and what doesn’t (failing fast? failing smart?). They will need time to experiment with different approaches to different things. The ITCM can help government innovate how it acquires IT, and help the government innovate what it acquires. These are different but related innovation targets with different people, processes, and requirements.

The ITCM will need time to collaborate. He or she will need time to learn what works and doesn’t with CIOs, CFOs, CAOs/CPOs and others. There’s deep experience in the Federal Government for the ITCM to draw on, but it will take time for everyone to pool what they know as individuals into a group knowledge they can use. The ITCM will need time to change. Whatever category management means, it’s change management at its core.

The ITCM, stakeholders, and customers will need time to hold new conversations and apply what they know and learn to change old processes and practices. One of innovation’s benefits is that discovery and learning yield unexpected opportunities.

Holding the ITCM accountable for operational results, too soon, will constrain discovery and learning. It’s appropriate to view IT category management as an innovation worthy of its own learning and collaboration objectives. It’s appropriate to resist the temptation to default to operational activities, requirements, and measurements, for a time.

For the first two years, the goal should be to help the ITCM learn how to do IT category management – not be held accountable for doing it. While efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and other operational objectives are the right business reasons for doing category management, a new approach to Federal acquisition has the potential to fundamentally change the way the government delivers value to American citizens and businesses. That’s innovation.

Can the Federal Government innovate IT buying? Category management and the ITCM are positive steps. Now let’s unthink what we expect from the role and duties so we can really rethink IT.

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