OMB directive seeks more bang for IT bucks

In what some observers called a shot across the bow the Office of Management and Budget last week put agencies on notice that information systems must meet strict new criteria to receive continued funding.

In a memo dated Oct. 25 OMB director Franklin D. Raines called for agency and department heads to prepare a list of their major information systems investments and an evaluation of how those programs meet eight specified criteria. The reports are due Nov. 12.

The checklist - what one observer called "an eight-point process to good IT management" - ranges from capital planning to information architecture and risk management.

More than just helpful guidelines the criteria will help OMB decide which programs will receive funding year by year. "As a general presumption OMB will recommend new or continued funding only for those major systems investments that satisfy these criteria " Raines said in his memo.

OMB provided the criteria in response to the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1995 recently consolidated into the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. ITMRA repealed the Brooks Act which gave the General Services Administration the lion's share of IT oversight responsibility including delegation of procurement authority.

In lieu of GSA oversight OMB along with Congress is expected to provide direction on major IT investments and enforce that direction through the budget process.

"Everyone is taking ITMRA very seriously " said Sally Katzen administrator of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. "We are interested in showing real progress in implementation and we thought it would be very helpful to the agencies to articulate the things we would be looking for and things they should be looking for."

One congressional staff member called the memo a useful guide to agency officials for future IT planning. "It lays things out in a broad perspective " the staff member said. "It does a good job of summarizing what are the key considerations in IT management."

If agencies find programs that fail to meet the criteria "we will work with them to determine how we should proceed " Katzen said. "[The criteria] will be met before funding is given."

According to the memo OMB in such instances will consider requests to use fiscal 1997 and 1998 funds to redesign agency work processes evaluate investment alternatives develop information architectures and use and evaluate prototypes.

Agency chief information officers last week praised both the content and intent of the OMB memo.The criteria spelled out by OMB "are perfectly consistent with the ITMRA " said Anne Reed acting CIO at the Agriculture Department. "They are salient to the issues we all have to deal with."

Compared with oversight under the Brooks Act "I believe it is a much improved environment " said NASA CIO Ron West. In particular the new process emphasizes program results and return on investment West said. "This is a much better way to do business and to try and control our costs " he said.

Taken with other OMB guidelines and congressional legislation "you are seeing a real shift in emphasis [judging] process to results and performance " said Al Burman president of Jefferson Solutions a management and consulting firm and part of the Jefferson Group Washington D.C.

But OMB apparently surprised many agency officials by giving them less than three weeks to prepare responses.

Several agencies last week said they would do their best to meet the deadline but are unlikely to provide the full scope of information OMB requested.

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