Agencies still in need of better IT management

If a new report by the General Accounting Office is any indication federal agencies have a long way to go before they fully comply with new laws designed to improve management of their information technology investments.

The report "Information Technology Investment: Agencies Can Improve Cost and Minimize Risks " looks closely at the IT management practices of five agencies and finds them wanting. Although each agency - the Coast Guard NASA the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service - has incorporated elements of sound investment practices into their operations none had a "complete institutionalized process" that would enable it to meet the demands of the new Clinger-Cohen Act (formerly the Information Technology Management Reform Act).

Not all agencies had the same weaknesses but in general GAO found they:* Did not use uniform procedures to choose and manage their systems.* Emphasized "justifying new project funding rather than managing all IT projects as a portfolio of competing investments."* Made funding decisions without paying enough attention to "management control or evaluation processes " without using well-defined criteria and without having "up-to-date or accurate cost benefit and risk data."

GAO said as it has done in previous reports that if agencies use an "investment-driven management approach" similar to that used by leading private-sector companies they will get better returns on their IT investments. The report notes that the management requirements of the Clinger-Cohen Act "closely parallel" these procedures.

Morgan Kinghorn consultant with Coopers & Lybrand and former IRS chief information officer said GAO's findings are not surprising. Until recently he said no one was interested in the range of performance measures agencies are being asked to track so agencies have not had procedures to do this.

Extrapolating the Findings

Although GAO's report does not apply its findings to the entire government Kinghorn noted that the agencies GAO studied have some of the most extensive IT investments outside the Defense Department.

GAO noted that the agencies it studied have recently changed some of their management procedures but that it is too soon to determine how well new practices have worked.

GAO also had advice for the Office of Management and Budget which under the Clinger-Cohen Act has to oversee how well agencies fulfill the terms of the law. Among its recommendations GAO said OMB should do more to help agencies improve their investment management procedures.

OMB generally agreed with GAO's suggestions but said that in evaluating agency performance it would focus on whether agencies achieve expected results from their investments rather than whether they followed its guidance to the letter.

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