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Lawmakers target 'wasteful' IT spending in gov't

New legislation would require the U.S. OMB and CIOs to regularly report on the status of IT projects

The U.S. government needs to provide more transparency about its IT projects, and agency CIOs must be held accountable for failed projects, a U.S. senator said.

Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate government information subcommittee, introduced a bill Tuesday designed to provide the public more information about the status of IT projects at federal agencies and to increase CIO reporting requirements for their agencies' IT projects.

The Information Technology Investment Management Act is similar to a bill Carper and other senators introduced in 2009. The 2009 legislation, which failed to pass through Congress, would have required the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to update a website tracking government projects each quarter and would have required quarterly reports on the progress of IT projects from agency CIOs.

While President Barack Obama's administration has taken steps to rein in failed IT projects, many other projects continue to have problems, Carper said during a subcommittee hearing targeting "wasteful" IT spending. U.S. taxpayers are "skeptical" of Congress' ability to manage the federal budget, he said.

"The past mismanagement of the nation's $80 billion annual information technology [budget] is not only intolerable, it's unsustainable," Carper said. "The failures of information technology management in the federal government have, in some cases, been spectacular."

The Federal IT Dashboard shows that more than a third of current projects need attention and nearly 5 percent have significant concerns.

The Obama administration rolled out a 25-point plan to reform federal IT projects in December, and the administration has already saved US$3 billion by cancelling four projects and restructuring 11 others, said Vivek Kundra, Obama's CIO.

The plan recommends a new management training program in the U.S. government, a reduction of more than 800 government data centers by 2015, and an emphasis on agencies using cloud computing instead of hosting their own IT services. The number of federal government data centers has grown from 432 in 1998 to more than 2,000 today, and the IT plan aims to eliminate "duplicative" services, Kundra said.

The emphasis on training and recruiting program managers is especially important, Kundra said. "No matter how effective our technologies and policies, the success of our complicated, high-profile and expensive programs rest[s] on the shoulders of effective program managers," he said. "Yet, too often, these programs are managed by individuals randomly pulled from across the government who lack the training to successfully deliver."

When Kundra and OMB examine a troubled project, they give it six months to deliver value before cancelling it or restructuring it, Kundra said. "Within six months, if you can't prove that you've delivered something of value to your customers, then you need to either halt that project, or you need to either fundamentally rethink it or terminate it," he said. "What we're seeing with these large enterprise projects is that people are spending years, in some cases decades, implementing a project that's not working."

Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, questioned if large, multiyear IT projects were still worthwhile. In many cases, the technology may be obsolete by the time the project is completed, he said.

"It always seems like we're a couple of steps behind -- it seems like the government is an easy mark," Brown said.

The Obama administration's emphasis on cloud computing may help with large projects becoming quickly obsolete, Kundra said. "The culture in government historically has been that the government must build its own infrastructure; it must own the software development," he said. "One of the reasons we're shifting to the cloud-first policy, essentially, is to move away from this philosophy of asset ownership to service provisioning."

While Kundra deserves praise for pushing the 25-point plan, many government IT workers appear confused about the proposals and question if they can be accomplished, said Steve O'Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk, a privately owned social network focused on government IT.

"Twenty-five points -- really?" O'Keeffe said. "When I was a small boy in school, I had profound challenges remembering the 10 commandments -- and there were only 10 of them."

In a MeriTalk survey of federal IT workers and private businesses, the administration's cloud-first proposal ranked the lowest of the 25 points, with data center consolidation in the middle of the pack. Those two initiatives are the "brains and stomach" of the 25-point plan, O'Keeffe said.

Government employees said several of the 25 proposals were unlikely to succeed, he added. While respondents generally found most of the proposals desirable, "there are serious questions about executability," he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is [email protected]


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