IT acquisition failures land on high-risk list

Technology problems are at the heart of a number of programs on GAO’s list of troubled federal initiatives.

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(Image: Dencg / Shutterstock)

The failure of a number of big federal agency IT projects in the last few years has prompted the Government Accountability Office to add federal IT acquisition to its biennial list highlighting programs at high risk for fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement.

IT acquisition was one of two additions to the 2015 list. The other was veterans' health care, where the problems include a substantial IT component. No programs were removed from the 2013 list.

“Too frequently, federal IT investments fail to be completed or incur cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes,” said Gene Dodaro, comptroller general of the United States and head of the GAO said in a Feb. 11 statement accompanying the report's release. During the past five years, GAO said it made more than 730 recommendations concerning IT acquisition; fewer than one quarter of those had been fully implemented as of January 2015.

Chris Mihm, managing director of GAO's Strategic Issues team, put a finer point on the continuing federal IT acquisition problems in a podcast accompanying the report. "Each year, the federal government invests about $80 billion in IT projects. This is across all federal agencies." And even though GAO continues to do "an awful lot of evaluations and assessments" of IT projects at the request of Congress, Mihm said problems continue. "Unfortunately, fairly consistently, we find problems with these projects. And these seem to center on a lack of discipline and effective management practices, the need for improvements in project planning, and poor program oversight in governance."

The report cited big problems with Healthcare.gov, the Department of Homeland Security's 2011 failed and now-abandoned $1 billion Secure Border Initiative, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ failed $609 million Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise program, the Office of Personnel Management’s canceled $231 million Retirement Systems Modernization program, and other junked programs as evidence of shaky IT spending.

The report also identified a number of ongoing IT projects that have "significant issues requiring attention."

Those include the Department of Agriculture Farm Program Modernization, which aims to modernize the IT systems supporting the Farm Service Agency’s 37 programs; the Department of Commerce Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing program, initiated in fiscal 2015 to be the backbone of the Census Bureau’s target IT architecture; and Citizenship and Immigration Services’ transformation program.

The GAO also said agencies lagged in implementing Office of Management and Budget reforms aimed at reducing IT investment risk. OMB's 2010 reforms called for agencies’ major programs to deliver functionality every 12 months and, since 2012, has required them to deliver functionality every 6 months, said the report. Less than half of selected programs at five major agencies planned to deliver capabilities in 12-month cycles, said GAO.

The agency recommended OMB develop and issue clearer guidance on incremental development. It also recommended that some agencies update and implement associated policies, adding that "most" agencies agreed with the recommendation or had no comment.

GAO also said that agencies should continue conducting TechStat reviews for at-risk programs, as well as updating the public version of the IT Dashboard throughout the year, and develop comprehensive inventories of federal agencies’ software licenses.

Mihm said agencies need to use the statutory tools that Congress provided through the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, which gives "CIOs greater transparency and authority over investments in each of the agencies."

That idea was seconded by one of the law's creators in Congress in a statement before a Feb. 11 Senate hearing on the GAO report.

"FITARA will strengthen the roles of chief information officers across the government and will give them better tools to manage IT investments,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Trey Hodgkins, a senior vice president at the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector, said the "information technology community should embrace this news" because "it amplifies and reinforces the drumbeat message thought leaders ... and industry have been delivering to Congress and the Obama administration regarding the need for acquisition reform, with a particular emphasis on IT acquisition reform."

Hodgkins also noted that the addition of IT acquisition to the list "reaffirms the complaints most often heard about IT investments and management, noting programs are over budget, have schedule delays, and don’t deliver the capabilities originally sought for the mission."

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