IT lags among budget priorities

As Congress shapes the 2002 federal budget, the outlook grows gloomy for IT vendors and federal agency IT managers. "On a long list of priorities, information technology is really not up there," Kurt Dodd said bluntly.

As a staff assistant on the House Appropriations Committee's Treasury, Postal and General Government Subcommittee, Dodd freely admits he does "not know a whole lot about IT." But he knows enough about budgeting and politics to know that 2002 is looking less and less like a banner year for government IT spending.

"There are a lot of competing priorities," he told a conference of government IT managers and corporate IT vendors June 19. "We have critical resource problems."

Just paying for inflation, even at today's modest levels, is likely to curtail IT spending, Dodd warned. President Bush's proposed 2002 budget did not include money to cover the cost of non-pay inflation, so when expenses such as the cost of travel increase, the bills will have to be paid by making cuts elsewhere.

Congressional adjustments seem likely to compound that problem. For example, the president has proposed a 3.6 percent pay raise for government employees, but Congress is considering a 4.6 percent increase. Money for extra pay may come at the expense of other spending, Dodd said.

Compare budget requests with revenue, and it soon becomes clear that "there is not sufficient money to pay for it all," he said in an address to a conference titled E-Government: Making Effective Agency Investments.

"I'm sure you are all aware of good IT projects that did not get into the budget," Dodd said. But there are steps agency officials can take to improve the chances their favorite IT projects will be funded:

* Prepare a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis of the project, including an explanation of how it will help accomplish the agency's mission.

* Describe "why this particular project, why now, why can't it be delayed," he said.

* Determine whether some other agency could do it better.

* Determine what steps have been taken to limit the risk of failure.

Dodd said the appropriations subcommittee will also want details about the people who will be managing IT programs, including their professional backgrounds and previous IT successes and failures.

Before approving an IT project, subcommittee members are likely to seek outside advice, including opinions from the General Accounting Office, the CIO Council and agency investment review boards, he said.

IT projects get a big boost if they are important enough for the agency secretary to mention during his budget presentation to Congress, Dodd said. But projects may be doomed if they don't seem to contribute much to the agency's overall mission, or it they appear, instead, to be "IT for IT's sake."

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