Agencies battle to meet IT rules

Two federal laws that required agencies to show how the billions of dollars spent on information technology were helping programs run better played at best a minimal role in the formation of fiscal 1998 budgets.

The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) and the Clinger-Cohen Act demand federal agencies show how their IT expenditures will help programs become more efficient and effective but agencies gave scant detail in their fiscal 1998 budgets submitted last month about how they plan to spend their technology budgets next year.

Officials said however that both statutes have engendered changes in how they approach spending decisions which in turn will lead to better data about just what technology contributes to the government's bottom line.

"There is a lot more emphasis on up-front planning " said Anne Thomson Reed chief information officer with the Agriculture Department. Although the department has not yet specified exactly how much it plans to spend on technology in fiscal 1998 Reed said "[Our] numbers are not as loose as they were in the past."

GPRA requires agen-cies to submit for the first time this year strategic plans that describe their missions and how they will go about achieving their long-term goals. The Clinger-Cohen Act demands that agencies rank their information systems proj-ects based upon how important they are to accomplishing these goals. Together the laws are supposed to produce IT budgets that reflect the investments that agencies deem most critical to their operations and reduce duplication among agency systems.

Several agencies acknowledged however that they have been unable to link their IT investments to any strategic goals. Marty Eckes a budget officer with the U.S. Geological Survey said his agency will not consider GPRA requirements until it begins planning its fiscal 1999 budget request which under the law must include detailed performance plans for agency programs.

"I really think federal agencies are struggling with how to go through and do that " said John Keane a consultant with DMR Group Inc. a Falls Church Va. company that is helping federal agencies inventory their information systems.

Spending Justification

Some agencies have begun to describe at least at a basic level why they are spending money on certain programs. Mark Boster deputy chief information officer at the Justice Department said top agency officials made compliance with the Clinger-Cohen Act a top priority. One way Justice has begun to carry out the law Boster said is to develop a departmentwide systems architecture that would ensure various law enforcement systems could interoperate.

At NASA agency officials this year incorporated their IT budgets into program budget decisions for the first time said Andrea Norris a member of NASA's IT planning office staff.

And the Treasury Department outlined this year in its budget documents which systems contribute to specific parts of its mission although it did not provide many details about the return expected on specific investments. For example under the goal of identifying people suspected of money laundering Treasury describes an artificial-intelligence system used by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to search for suspicious patterns in currency transactions. The system allowed Fincen to identify 80 percent more suspects than it planned to target last year.

Still James Flyzik acting CIO at Treasury said the department has "a long way to go" before it can show how all of its systems help improve performance. He said he has proposed "to realign our entire organization" to manage technology programs according to the new paradigm.

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