17 March 2011

We all do it. We edit the information that we reveal about ourselves to present our best features… to show ourselves in the best light. Prospective employees edit their resume and leave off the job where they were fired for poor performance. Hollywood stars edit their bio and don?t mention that they waited tables for 10 years before making it big with a movie role that made them famous. Models on the covers of magazine have their blemishes and wrinkles reduced or removed with photoshop. I firmly believe that i?m 23.4% better looking and more interesting in my online profiles than I am in real life. So it should be no surprise when Federal Employees who have been given the public?s money, prepare reports that bury unflattering data in small type on a page deep in the back and put the data that makes them look the best in the front part where people casually perusing the report are more likely to see it. It?s human nature. What it doesn?t do is give objective standards of how a project, any project, is being shepherded and an overall view of the project?s health. In previous years, The government agencies reported on Technology investments with a paper report to congress and OMB. There were minimal standards as to what those reports should contain or how the project?s progress should be explained, defined or quantified. It was easy to create a report that painted a better picture than what was actually the case with an investment project and many software projects languished in development for years with little or no measurable progress and no oversight on costs but were justified by the way the data was presented to the decision makers… ?See the bars on this graph go up… that?s good, ergo, the project is doing well.? A year or two ago, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) began a project called the ?Technology Dashboard? to track spending on long-term technology investments across government agencies. This project was unique in that it established data standards for reporting on the projects the government began and measured all projects on a level playing field for the first time. It gave ratings to the project, Red, Green, Yellow. Projects that went ?into the red? (not necessarily cost overruns, but a series of measures that were applied equally to all projects) those projects were put on a list to do what is called a ?TechStat.? A status update to check progress and explain any irregularities with the project milestones and monies paid. To say that this process was revolutionary, is an understatement. Many agencies prepared reports once a year. To shift them to quarterly reporting through an online app is like moving them from a horse and buggy to a Toyota Camry. But what it brought (and continues to bring) was a revolution in the way software for the government was created. All the trends we?ve seen in software development over the last 10 years began to be reflected in government software projects. Project goals were shrunk into smaller, more obtainable milestones. Tools became more specific and task driven. There was an almost immediate trend away from large omnibus ?one ring to rule them all? software projects and a focus on smaller, more behavior-driven tools to solve specific agency problems. At this precise moment in our story, the front door swings open, lights swivel and in walks our star… Drupal. Drupal became and continues to become a very easy way to rapidly prototype a web app and get the application project into a working version quickly. It?s open source heritage keeps software costs down and it?s enormous development community ensures that most of what you do in drupal, has been done before. Need forums? There?s a module for that. Need a blog? There?s a module for that. Drupal?s a worldly gal and wherever you need to go, most of the time she?s been there and done that. So very soon the company I work for, REI Systems, will celebrate the open-sourced release of the code behind the Technology Dashboard. The project is basically a Drupal distro with some business logic for analyzing project data and some visualization tools that takes Drupal data and makes it easier for decision makers to compare projects. As an employee, i?m very proud of the job we?ve done and what we?ve accomplished in such a short time. I?m proud of the tools we?ve created that are, quite literally, changing our country for the better. As OMB further clarifies data standards for reporting agency expenditures online, I would expect to see more tools like the Tech Dashboard coming from Vivek?s team at OMB. It will be interesting to see how the converging worlds of social media and web applications create tomorrow?s US government.