A planning formula for senior managers in federal government

Based on his experience working with federal government clients, Systemscope Partner Stephen Karam of Systemscope’s Government Service Excellence practice has crafted several strategies for senior managers who are about to plan their business transformation projects for the following fiscal year. Colleague Denise Eisner chatted with Stephen about how these strategies support decision-making in a time of limited resources.

Government managers are heading into a key planning period. What should be top of mind when they sit down to chart out next fiscal year?

There are three key themes that management should focus on before initiating large business transformation projects: engagement, framing the problem, and defining specific tools as drivers of transformation.

Let’s first look at engagement. Many times, we have observed managers who have an idea and try to push it up the chain alone without engaging with their colleagues first. Frame your issue it so it engages your peers and their ADM or the DM. Tie yourself to a hot political item in the organization and demonstrate how your plan brings the greatest value internally and to your clients.

How should a manager start the planning process for a new project?

That question brings me to the second theme: not only framing your business problem in a way that engages executives and builds a peer community in support of your vision, but doing so in a way that can be measured.

Have you noticed that a lot of recent Treasury Board initiatives are internally focused? Examples include the upcoming Service Strategy, initially focused on internal service improvement, as well as efforts on improvement of Grants & Contributions (Gs&Cs), looking to reduce administration costs by 10%. I recommend that managers quantify their improvements in the same way. The more you can demonstrate what you want to achieve and how you plan to do it, you are better positioned to receive your ask.

In terms of framing projects, you also want to align with your organization’s Program Activity Architecture (PAA), the Management Accountability Framework (MAF), and the Federal Accountability Act. A common pitfall of a lot of initiatives is that they can articulate how external clients will benefit from transformation, but they do not specifically map outcomes to the machinery of government. When an executive has to prioritize within their portfolio of projects, you must make it easy for them to choose your initiative – both from the client perspective but also from the bureaucracy lens.

Is what you’re describing typically referred to as a business transformation project?

People want to label anything transformation. A common misconception is that business transformation is the same as service transformation. Business transformation is focused on an improved way of doing business and fulfilling strategic policy; it’s truly a change in business and culture. It’s not only a set of projects, but an ongoing program of change.

Executives have to be very clear about what they are trying to transform. How is the business going to be better? When talking to the ADM or DM, rather than touting a technological platform as being better, talk about how it can make the business run better – using measurable improvements to sell your case. Show how the proposed solution can reduce errors, improve throughput and by how much. Now you’re talking about performance metrics. Now you’re starting to align with MAF and PAA. Apply the transformation label only if it truly transforms or enables that process.

Many clients still tend to lead with technology when labeling a transformation project. Does this work?

The challenge is that tools are part of “engineering” a solution; effectively planning focuses on the architecture of an outcome. For example, GC organizations who are Microsoft-based are saying they will invest in MOSS as part of their evergreening process, yet they will label the project as a transformation initiative. It can be, only if the organization focuses on why, what and how it wants to transformation from the perspective of business, process and data/information. Only then can it be determined how to engineer a solution to support the transformation.

One of our clients has fully integrated their systems with MOSS so it is the interface where users have to log in to all their systems, acting as a Business Process Platform. In order to make this successful, the client did a lot of upfront work in the way of business, process and information architecture previous to MOSS being installed and configured. MOSS enabled but did not change the way they do their core business.

What supporting skill sets are needed to plan big projects effectively?

One of the significant gaps in government now is the ability to effectively capture and translate business requirements into actual functional and system requirements that will enable programs’ business needs, both external and internal facing . There must be a group in the organization to bridge that gap. Some departments have a group in the CIO called portfolio management or a similar name. These teams are designed to enable their clients to fulfill business goals. But the missing ingredient is often solid business analysis skills. True business analysis is driven by a deep understanding of business outcomes. Building that business analysis capability represents a fundamental internal challenge that senior managers still need to address. While there has been advancement in this area by some departments, we are observing a critical lack of capacity and capability for these resources across organizations to keep up with the demand of the business.


Denise Eisner is a senior-level web strategist and communications specialist with a passion for creating enhanced user experiences. As a member of the Government Service Excellence practice, Denise’s experience and specializations include web strategy development, information architecture, web analytics (WebTrends and Google Analytics) and web project management. She has led large-scale content audits, developed performance measurement frameworks, and coordinated site updates to meet Treasury Board policies standards and guidelines. Engaged in the evolving spheres of information technology, corporate communications and media for almost two decades, Denise has transformed business objectives into web strategies and information architectures for corporate and government clients in the U.S. and Canada.


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