Agencies still struggle to manage IT

Senators press OMB officials to reverse repeated history of IT project failures

Agency IT projects continue to falter

Almost a year ago the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee asked 25 agencies to report on the number of information technology projects they had under way. The subcommittee also asked the agencies about the number of projects for which they altered the original cost estimate, schedule and/or performance metrics — a process known as rebaselining.

After waiting nearly a year, the subcommittee received responses from 18 agencies. The survey showed these agencies having the highest rebaselining rates relative to the total number of projects.

Agency - Percent of IT projects rebaselined

VA - 92

HHS - 53

Treasury - 46

DOD - 36

Labor - 33

USAID - 32

State - 30

Justice - 30

— Jason Miller

In the more than 10 years since the Clinger-Cohen Act set the basic requirements for managing information technology projects, few agencies have successfully implemented those standards. Some senators say they have lost patience with agencies whose IT projects are delayed, cost more than expected and fail to accomplish their purpose.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee, turned up the heat last week by asking the Office of Management and Budget and agency officials to solve the government’s persistent IT management problems.

“I’m very worried that we have a lot of money at risk because we are not moving fast enough to fix these project management problems,” Coburn said during a Sept. 20 hearing on IT project management. “OMB must address the root causes of these problem projects.” It was the subcommitee’s second hearing on the issue since October 2006.

The subcommittee found that the Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services and Treasury departments are having the most trouble managing IT projects. It surveyed 18 agencies and found that VA had altered the cost, schedule and performance measures of 90 percent of its IT projects, a process known as rebaselining. HHS rebaselined 52 percent of its IT projects, and Treasury 46 percent.

Overall, 18 departments rebaselined almost 20 percent of their 2,027 projects, the subcommittee found.

“These are very concerning figures, especially VA,” Coburn said. “If anywhere in the private sector had these change rates, they would fire the people responsible.”

“I’m very worried that we have a lot of money at risk because we are not moving fast enough to fix these project management problems.” Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)

A majority committee staff member said Carper wants to investigate why projects fail and would consider holding back funds until the project plans are fixed.

Another problem cited is the continuing use of cost-plus contracts, which can encourage vendors to increase their projects’ costs, Coburn said. Most IT contracts should be firm fixed-price awards, he said. “We are wasting $4 billion to $8 billion a year on IT because we are doing cost-plus contracts.”

Coburn promised to submit a request to the Government Accountability Office asking the auditors to examine why agencies rebaseline their projects and whether the use of cost-plus contracting is a factor.
“An in-depth GAO report will certainly help guide [Coburn’s] thinking before he decides to move forward on that,” a minority committee staff member said.

Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator for e-government and IT, told lawmakers that her office analyzes why projects have problems to determine whether they are systematic or agency-specific. “At VA, for instance, we are working with the CIO to address weaknesses that cause rebaselining,” Evans said.

Evans said OMB doesn’t share its analyses because they are based on predecisional information. But that answer left committee members and David Powner, GAO’s director of IT management issues, wondering aloud how accurate OMB’s data is.

“The planning of IT projects is pretty poor,” Powner said, adding that if GAO and Congress had OMB’s analyses, governmentwide issues could be addressed quicker.

When asked for more information, Evans said she would find out what she could provide GAO and the subcommittee.

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