Budget hawks watch IT projects

Lawmakers want agencies to make better business cases for their projects — and prove that they are well-managed—before granting them the funding they seek for next year.

Congress broke for its August recess leaving much work to be done on agencies' fiscal 2002 appropriations bills. Senate and House lawmakers will have to iron out their differences in conference, but committee members made it clear in reports that good management of information technology programs counts during the budget process.

Lawmakers are trying to support e-government initiatives, but are also sending signals that "money isn't a free good" and that requests must be justified, said Barry White, director for government performance projects at the Council for Excellence in Government. "It seems to be a very positive way of thinking about things," he said.

The Office of Management and Budget wants assurances that the $45 billion spent annually on IT is being put to good use, White said. "What you're seeing is a reaction to, and a reflection of, the growing intensity of the debate on the necessity for moving ahead with electronic government and focusing agencies' efforts."

Some examples include:

* The Senate Appropriations Committee has denied the $11 million request for the Federal Aviation Administration's Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System (STARS), which replaces computers and radar displays at terminal air traffic control facilities. This is because of "anticipated schedule slippages" and "the need to fund higher-priority activities." The panel requested a STARS status report to avoid jeopardizing future funding.

* The House Appropriations Committee recommended $100 million below current levels for the Justice Department's narrowband communications account, which includes the Justice Wireless Network. Panel members said they are concerned there is no operational plan for spending, and they want one by the beginning of October.

* The House committee said the FBI must continue to provide quarterly updates and funding obligations on Trilogy, its IT upgrade plan.

* The House committee will not provide the extra $35 million sought for Department of Housing and Urban Development IT programs without a comprehensive, multiyear budget plan. The committee wants a plan by Aug. 22, after which it will reconsider the request.

* Even though the Customs Service received support from Congress for its five-year modernization program, the House committee said it would release funding only after reviewing spending plans from the agency.

Appropriators are expressing concern over other well-funded programs. The Coast Guard's Integrated Deepwater Systems program received $300 million from the House and $325 million from the Senate—slightly below the $338 million request.

However, both the House and Senate appropriations panels would prohibit funds for the Deepwater contract until Transportation Department Secretary Norman Mineta and OMB Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. jointly certify that program funding for fiscal years 2003-2007 "is fully funded in the Coast Guard Capital Investment Plan and within OMB's budgetary projections for those years."

The Senate Appropriations Committee said in its report that it is "deeply concerned" about the cost and complexity of the Deepwater procurement. The cost could grow as high as $500 million "for fiscal 2003 and remain at that level for the next two decades," the report stated. Cmdr. Susan Woodruff in the Coast Guard's Office of Programs said she hoped the service could quell lawmaker concerns by providing them with more detailed briefings on the program and its acquisition strategy. And if Congress wants certification on Deepwater, "that's the route we're going to [take]," she said.

In another program, the House spending panel funded all but $1 million of President Bush's $20 million request for the National Archives and Records Administration's new electronic records archive. That project is designed to create a storage system so agencies' digital records can be read hundreds of years in the future.

House appropriators want a fiscal 2002 research plan from NARA; a plan to identify and periodically assess the electronic records in the archive; and a report by July 30, 2002, on the feasibility of other solutions based on existing commercial off-the-shelf products.

"I don't think it's unreasonable for Congress to ask for that, but I think that if there were COTS products available, NARA would be using them," said Patrice McDermott, information policy analyst at OMB Watch. The project is a complex one, she said, and NARA should be "looking past existing technology."

Meanwhile, other programs, such as the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program, are fighting for survival. Although the Senate Appropriations Committee would fully fund ATP at $204 million, the House said there's no proof showing "whether the program should exist in the first place" and discontinued funding for new grants. The House stance supports the Bush administration's position on ATP.

But Alan Balutis, executive director of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils and former ATP director, is hopeful. "With support for ATP from the scientific and manufacturing community and the clear-cut endorsement of the National Academy of Sciences study, I think the funding will emerge at or near the level laid out in the Senate mark," he said.

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