Hurdles Blocking Government IT Reform

Published: January 24, 2013

Acquisition ReformCONGRESSGovernment PerformanceInnovationWaste, Fraud, and Abuse

The House Oversight Committee held a hearing about reducing wasteful technology spending on January 22, 2013. As Rep. Darrell Issa described it, the session aimed to examine information technology (IT) procurement and how to stop investing “taxpayer dollars on obsolete and duplicative systems that don’t work.”

According to government reports, federal agencies plan to spend around $80 billion on information technology investments in fiscal year 2013. This sum would cover new investments, like modernization initiatives, as well as provide operations and maintenance (O&M) support for ongoing programs. The split would be around three quarters O&M and the remaining quarter would go towards development. Along with the imbalance between spending on steady state and new developments, redundant and unsuccessful programs caused concern.  Over the past several years, multiple government reports and testimonies have come out around federal initiatives to improve management of IT investments. Tracking spending and performance, establishment and enforcement of agency policies, standing up leadership roles to offer direction and guidance are just several paths that have been explored. As a result of these measures:
  • There are public resources like the IT Dashboard and USASpending that provide spending and performance data (currently only through August 2012).
  • Agencies have had some measure of success using TechStat reviews to improve program performance.
  • The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued guidance for developing policies and Operational Analysis.
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO) positions were created to provide government agencies with direction around IT acquisition and management, to support implementation of IT solutions, and to improve agency operational efficiency.
This most recent hearing highlighted some of the current setbacks around those steps.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen: Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, called out the sheer number of government CIOs. More than 240 people in the U.S. government have a CIO title. Issa noted that the Justice Department alone has 40. Lawmakers questioned whether the number of CIOs has caused problems, and they heard testimony that suggested an alternative view.
Not Enough Authority: The role of CIOs has been evolving. Tom Davis, former Republican congressman and Chairman of the Government Reform Committee, suggested that CIOs need more budget authority. The number of people in CIO roles is less of a problem than how little authority some have. The role varies across the government, and, in many cases, CIOs do not have authority to direct IT spending. Thus, they need to receive permission to act on innovative initiatives.
Lax Program Scrutiny:  Another challenge lies with accountability. Agencies ability identify project issues relies on the accurate reporting and performance tracking. However, reporting on the IT Dashboard has not been even across the government. Some agencies (the Defense Department, for example) do not report any major problems with IT projects, despite having dozens in progress. A government review of performance tracking at five agencies found inconsistencies in Operational Analysis for IT spending.
Procurement Fog: Davis also suggested that more training is needed for IT procurement officers. Since agencies are sustaining a lot of duplicative programs, the Office of Management and Budget expects streamlining agency portfolios could yield $2.5 billion in government savings over the next 3 years. Efficiently achieving those savings requires well-trained, organized procurement community.
In short, some progress has been made to increase transparency and oversight around spending and program performance, but these areas still need attention. This year, agencies will begin leveraging enterprise technology roadmaps and PortfolioStat reviews. Deficiencies around tracking and reporting performance will keep agencies from realizing the full benefits of these initiatives. Similarly, challenges around leadership and spending authority need to be ironed out in order for agencies to make modernization headway.