An Insider's Perspective on Washington, DC

For those of you outside of Washington, DC and outside of the Federal government, this post is dedicated a concept and document which will be completely foreign to you. Regardless, it is one of the hottest topics being discussed in and around the Beltway at the moment. No, it's not Karl Rove, it's the “OMB Circular A-11, Exhibit 300: Planning, Budgeting, Acquisition, and Management of Capital Assets” [warning, pdf]. So what is the document and why do people care about it?

The results of this document – along with the dollars described – get aggregated into a bigger document which gets aggregated into a bigger document, etc, etc, etc. The results of which eventually become the US Federal Budget Request that goes to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) which eventually creates its own document loosely based on this one and creates the US Federal Budget which gets signed by the President and eventually submitted to Congress for approval. They add in whatever happens to suit their interests that day and eventually approve it. Each step of this process takes months, but the biggest concern at the Department/Agency/Project level is happening now as groups write their E300's.*

If you didn't notice it above, the important part of this entire explanation is “dollars”. Yes, the entire point of this document is to describe how much money you need, why you need this particular amount, how well you've done with it in the past, and how your project improves, assists or defends the United States in some way. If you don't get funding, your project could get cut. If you do get funding, there's no problem. If you get some portion of the funding but not all of it, some tough decisions result. While I have yet to see explicit emotional appeals in an E300, I have been involved in a project that put away murders, rapists, and a variety of other bad people. You can be sure we shared and trumpeted these results.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up – other than my phone ringing off the hook – is that this budget will set the agenda for the US Government, many States, numerous Non-Government Organizations (NGO's), and the entire cadre of consultants, contractors, and other roles in and around Washington. This is the lifeblood of this area and is therefore one of the most hotly contested and bitterly fought battles short of a Presidential election and yet 98% of the public will never even know it happens. They only hear about the result when the news media picks up “Severe Cuts!” mantra once the budget comes out of OMB.

While basic business planning, measurements, etc are necessary for any business, I can't imagine running my business with these sorts of processes as I think most organizations would collapse under the sheer weight of the paperwork involved.

For those of you really interested in the details of what an E300 consists of, there are basically two portions. The first portion is a Business Case. This includes how your project meets the strategic goals of the Department/Agency along with specific instances and explanation. The next portion is alternatives analysis. You basically describe how your choice for solving this problem was the best of the options available. This is where the document can turn nasty. If you made technological decisions and investments in 1999 and have sunk $100M into your solution, the sheer inertia of the project can start to take control. The next portion is establishing what your measures have been in the past, how you've done against them, and what they are in the future. This is where concepts like Earned Value Management come into play.

The second part of the document is more fun and is the Technical Case. It is almost entirely technical and consists of your system overview, technical analysis, risk analysis, etc. The most disappointing part is that it seems that this is rarely reviewed to any rigor above the project level. I've seen inaccuracies, bad assumptions, and even idiotic assertions going into this portion, so although it's fun, it's probably much less important.

* The actual process has a number of review, comment, and challenge cycles in it. The description here is simplified.