GAO: Agencies ignoring IT in results plans

In a review of a governmentwide plan to squeeze greater performance out of the federal government, the General Accounting Office has cited problems in managing information technology as an obstacle to a more efficient government.

The GAO review -- released as three reports this month -- focuses on how well agencies are planning to comply with the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), a 1993 law that requires agencies to measure the performance of their programs and aims to improve service to the public.

In reviewing agencies' GPRA plans, GAO found that the executive branch often neglects IT. "Addressing information technology issues in annual performance plans is important because of technology's critical role in achieving results, the sizable investment the federal government makes in information technology (about $145 billion between 1992 and 1997), and the long-standing weaknesses in virtually every agency in successfully employing technology to further mission accomplishment," according to the first report. GAO's "Managing for Results: An Agenda to Improve the Usefulness of Agencies' Annual Performance Plan" continued: "The vital role that information technology can play in helping agencies achieve their goals was not clearly described in agency [GPRA] plans."

The lack of focus on IT issues was especially obvious with regard to managing the Year 2000 problem, according to the reports. "As noted in our overall assessment of fiscal year 1999 agency performance plans, most agencies did not consistently incorporate strategies to address mission-critical management problems, including, for example, the Year 2000 computer conversion issue, which is the first interagency management objective included in the governmentwide plan," according to the report "The Results Act: Assessment of the Governmentwide Performance Plan for Fiscal Year 1999."

In the "Managing for Results" report, GAO officials concluded that the Small Business Administration's performance plan discussed how the agency planned to work with small businesses to fix computers for the Year 2000 problem, but "the plan did not discuss or provide information on SBA's efforts to resolve the agency's own Year 2000 problems."

Congressional staff members did not find agencies' lack of IT-specific plans in the GPRA blueprints as unusual. "Agencies, in their plans, tend to not focus on their internal management problems to the degree that I think GAO would like," said one staff member on the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs.

The staff member said the situation is not surprising, given that agencies find GPRA and the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, a law that requires agencies to adopt more businesslike practices for IT use and acquisition, still new. "I would say that there is still a lot of improvement needed to integrate Clinger-Cohen and GPRA," the staffer said. "We're just starting implementation of both of these laws."

The staff member recommended that agencies' GPRA managers meet with Clinger-Cohen managers to focus on how investments in IT can improve overall performance.

The GAO reports also zero in on other IT-related obstacles to better government performance. GAO reported that one section of the Clinton administration's GPRA performance plan "appropriately describes the role played by interagency working groups, such as the Chief Financial Officers Council and Chief Information Officers Council, identifying and implementing ways to better manage federal resources, but [the plan] does not offer much discussion of their responsibilities and contributions toward specific...objectives."

GAO's third report on GPRA was "Performance Management: Aligning Employee Performance with Agency Goals at Six Results Act Pilots."

Furthermore, improving performance may require agencies to collect more or better data, which would raise new IT issues. "To better depict the context for and progress associated with performance goals defined in the governmentwide plan, we recommend that [the Office of Management and Budget] include baseline and trend information, where credible data are available or include information on efforts to develop such data," according to GAO.

Generating credible data will require information systems. "If they don't have that data, that means they're going to have to build a system to collect it," the Senate staff member said.

In responding to drafts of the GAO reports, OMB's deputy director for management, Ed DeSeve, wrote that the current performance plan -- the first ever -- surpassed requirements of GPRA and that future plans will improve upon the current one.

"We appreciate your observation that the 'governmentwide performance plan generally addressed the requirements and intent of [GPRA].' This initial plan not only met the requirements of the act, but, indeed, went significantly beyond those requirements," DeSeve wrote. "Future plans can and will improve."

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