GAO guidebook outlines steps for wise spending decisions

Agencies trying to figure out how information technology expenditures will benefit their operations without posing undue risks can turn to a new General Accounting Office guidebook for evaluating IT investments.

The publication "Assessing Risks and Returns: A Guide for Evaluating Federal Agencies' IT Investment Decision Making " details the kinds of procedures agencies should put in place so they can collect the information needed to make wise spending decisions. In an introduction GAO officials said "it may be unusual especially early on " to have all these procedures in place but agencies may be able to take advantage of some recommendations right away.

David McClure senior assistant director with GAO's Information Resources Management Policies and Issues Group said the procedures outlined in the guide will help agencies meet the eight criteria for approval of IT budgets known as "Raines' rules " which were set by the Office of Management and Budget last year. "A lot of agencies are still struggling with what is an IT investment decision process " McClure said.

Keeping Pace With Capital Programming

GAO said its advice is consistent with the approach that OMB is taking in its forthcoming "Capital Programming Guide " which has been circulating in draft form among agency officials since December. Both documents as well as research being conducted by the Chief Information Officers Council and the Industry Advisory Council aim to help agencies comply with the Clinger-Cohen Act and other recent IT management and procurement reform laws.

According to GAO's guide agencies need to have procedures that allow them to select the best projects control how systems are developed and evaluate whether investments achieve the expected results. These procedures should allow agencies to collect the data they need to make spending decisions.

"Capital planning is very very difficult and anything that gives agencies guidance is welcome " said Olga Grkavac senior vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division. "It is probably one of the biggest challenges for the chief information officer and there is no real road map for how that is to be done."

McClure said that as agencies have worked at crafting new procedures they have tended to place too much emphasis on establishing ways to choose new IT projects rather than monitoring and evaluating projects that are already under way.

"They're ignoring a lot of control processes that would cover what you already have in the pipeline " he said. "My recommendation would be not to just focus on one slice of this process" but in the areas where overall management is weakest.

The guide proposes dozens of questions agencies should ask themselves to determine whether they are adequately assessing IT investments at different stages of their development. The questions can be used to review general agency policies and evaluate programs.

Although it offers as an example how one unnamed agency compares its proj-ects according to a weighted point scale the guide notes that the procedures agencies put in place may vary according to the scope importance and difficulty of their projects.

The guide is available at www.gao.gov/policy/itguide/index.htm.

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