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Lawmakers look to reduce waste in US government IT contracts

As much as a quarter of the US government's annual IT spending is wasted, lawmakers say

U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday urged government officials to clamp down on bad IT contracts and limit duplication across projects, with an estimated one quarter of federal spending on IT wasted every year.

The U.S. government will spend nearly US$80 billion on IT this year, making it the largest purchaser of such products on the planet, but a significant amount is wasted through duplication, unsuccessful implementations and other problems, said Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican.

About three quarters of large federal IT programs are plagued with failures or cost overruns and about 47 percent of agencies' IT budgets go toward maintaining "obsolete and deficient" resources, Issa said during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"We've built an IT infrastructure that is bloated, inefficient, and actually makes it more difficult for the government to serve its citizens," he said. "Are the American people getting what they paid for?"

Lawmakers and witnesses floated several ideas for reducing waste in federal IT contracts.

Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman, called for Congress to give agency CIOs more budget authority. Too many CIOs have little authority to shape their agencies' IT spending, he told the committee. Davis also called for more training for IT procurement officers.

Issa, chairman of the committee, and other lawmakers questioned why there are more than 240 people with CIO titles in the U.S. government. The U.S. Department of Justice has 40 CIOs on staff, Issa noted.

That many CIOs "seems to be a situation where there is no accountability," added Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

But Davis and Steven VanRoekel, the federal government's top CIO, suggested the number of CIO titles wasn't as much of a problem as a lack of authority. Many CIOs need to ask permission before they can move forward on innovative IT ideas, VanRoekel said.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has taken several steps to improve IT procurement in the U.S. government, VanRoekel said. He pointed to the federal IT dashboard, which tracks projects and looks for those at risk.

But the IT dashboard isn't perfect, said David Powner, director of IT management issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Some large agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, currently report no IT projects with major problems, even though they have dozens of projects in progress, he said.

"I'm concerned that we have a system of garbage in/garbage out," said Representative Blake Farenthold, a Texas Republican.

Many agencies seem to be resisting OMB's call to move their IT systems to the cloud, despite a potential cost savings, added Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Washington, D.C., Democrat.

OMB is trying to budget for costs associated with moving services to private cloud providers, but the government's short-term budgeting process doesn't reward agencies for focusing on long-term cost savings, VanRoekel said. As Congress tries to cut budgets, it's also difficult to justify short-term costs for a transition to the cloud, he added.

Norton also raised concerns that a significant amount of the federal government's IT budget goes toward maintaining outdated systems.

Issue joked that there's a benefit: Some systems are so outdated that they don't connect to the Internet or are written in coding languages so old that they are immune from hackers. Some federal systems are "so obsolete, they're hacker-proof," he said. "There aren't old enough hackers, perhaps."

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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