The $79.4B buzz killer

How could a $79.4 billion budget proposal for information technology come off as such a ho-hum affair? It’s all about context.

Start with the basics. Although a heady amount by most measures, that money represents just a small slice of the $3.8 trillion budget for fiscal 2011 that President Barack Obama proposed last week.

Also, think back over the past 10 years. The increase in IT spending varied from year to year, but one thing was constant: It always went up. All told, the IT budget increased approximately 80 percent between 2001 and 2010.

But the buck stops here, in a manner of speaking. Obama’s 2011 request is more than the administration proposed for fiscal 2010 and less than was enacted, but the difference is tiny — less than 2 percent in either direction.

And let’s be honest, this budget is not about modernizing technology but about creating jobs, freezing spending and putting the moon mission into the dustbin of history.

That being said, the budget proposal includes plenty of nitty-gritty detail of more than passing interest to people in the federal IT community. You can find a bevy of details on FCW.com's budget portal.

A few nuggets caught the attention of the mainstream technology press.

For example, the Obama administration plans to invest $1.1 billion in the Next Generation Air Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration’s program for modernizing air travel, reports blogger Larry Dignan at ZDNet. That’s a 30 percent boost from 2010.

Another winner is health IT, which is slated to receive $78 million, roughly a 28 percent increase from 2010, as noted by Marianne Kolbasuk McGee at InformationWeek.

However, most of the IT budget news is more nuanced. For example, the administration is requesting funding for 809 major projects, up from 781 in the fiscal 2010 budget. But the total investment is only a smidgen higher — $40.4 billion compared to $40.3 billion.

The administration also plans to continue pushing agencies toward cloud computing and virtualization. But whatever money is spent upgrading agency infrastructures likely will be offset by reducing spending in other areas, most notably agency data centers that have sprouted everywhere.

“The trick for federal CIOs will be to consolidate, centralize and increase their use of technologies such as virtualization, without spending new money,” writes Patrick Thibodeau of Computerworld.

It’s worth noting, however, that the budget request reiterates the administration’s commitment to injecting new technology into government operations.

That was the take-away for TechAmerica, a lobbying group for the IT industry. TechAmerica officials are encouraged by the administration’s work in such areas as transparency, social media and cloud computing, according to TechAmerica’s 2011 budget analysis. “Through these efforts, we will realize the potential of information technology to transform the government and improve its service to all Americans,” the document states.

As reported by FCW's staff, the request candidly acknowledges that consumer technologies are outpacing the government’s ability to adopt them, in large part because of antiquated policies. To that end, the budget calls for a review of the Paperwork Reduction Act, the federal policy on Web site cookies and a few other governmentwide rules that might be unnecessarily holding agencies back.

It also calls for a new tracking tool with daily updates that would give the public the ability to view aggregate spending by agency and geographic area and a new search engine that would allow the public to customize information by location, agency or time frame.

A final note: Perhaps the $79.4 billion IT budget is not creating a lot of buzz, but that is still a lot of money, and someone’s got to spend it. And so, as reported by FCW’s Matthew Weigelt, administration officials are on the record as saying the acquisition workforce needs to grow, and the budget request includes nearly $25 million for training and management.

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