Senator insists on IT results

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), chairman of a committee that oversees government management, last week sent letters to 24 agencies encouraging them to correct long-standing management problems that include troubled information technology projects.

The letters are meant to send a message to agencies, which face the task of assembling for Congress the first official reports on how well they are meeting their missions. The Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993, which sought to create a more productive federal government, requires agencies to file the reports as well as ongoing congressionally reviewed plans for meeting their goals.

Thompson, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to agencies to highlight technology problems that threaten performance. He used previous studies by the General Accounting Office as a basis for the letters.

"GAO found that the FY 2000 [performance] plan had two key weaknesses," Thompson wrote to NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. "One was the lack of a clear rationale for how information technology-related strategies and programs contribute to achievement of performance goals. For instance, GAO believes that the plan is unrealistic in its discussion of how the Earth Observing System Data and Information System, an IT-related resource, will contribute to the achievement of NASA's performance goal of increasing the number of products delivered from its archive and make the data available to users more rapidly in fiscal year 2000."

A NASA spokesman last week declined comment, explaining that Goldin and other NASA officials who plan to respond to Thompson's letter, were out of the office.

In his letters, Thompson said his committee "expects agencies to take every opportunity to use the many tools available to them, such as GPRA plans, to resolve major management problems."

Thompson's letters also highlighted past technology problems at agencies, including those at the departments of Commerce, Interior, Justice and Transportation. Thompson called "inexcusable" Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's failure to include any goals to resolve problems with a computer system to track the distribution of trust funds for American Indians or for the Automated Land and Mineral Record System, an effort to modernize systems for tracking information about land and mineral rights on federal property.

In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, Thompson wrote that he was "disappointed" that almost half of the open audit recommendations of Justice's inspector general addressed computer security problems. "Computer security is a governmentwide 'high-risk' problem area that poses particularly serious potential risks at Justice in view of its many highly sensitive information systems," he wrote.

"We've just received that letter, and we are reviewing it, and it's really all that we can comment on at this time," a Justice Department spokeswoman said. At the Defense Department, Thompson singled out several IT-related problems, including logistics, an area in which the department relies on computer systems to track and distribute assets.

The letter noted that DOD has been plagued by mismanagement. "GAO identifies six high-risk areas that are specific to DOD: systems development and modernization efforts, contract management, infrastructure, weapons systems acquisition, inventory management and financial management. And these are in addition to governmentwide high-risk areas, such as the Year 2000 computer problem and information security, both of which beset DOD." Thompson also asked the agency to focus on "high-risk" modernization projects at the National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administration. For the FAA, Thompson asked the agency to focus on air traffic control modernization, financial management and security.

Despite Thompson's concerns about FAA programs, DOT Secretary Rodney Slater last week touted his department's performance plan as the best in the government, citing a recent GAO report that puts the department near the top of the list for providing clear plans. A related report issued on Wednesday by Thompson, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and House Government Reform Committee chairman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), cited DOT as having the best performance plan.

"My perception is that the agencies themselves are taking this pretty seriously," said Ellen Taylor, a policy analyst who studies budget issues at OMB Watch. "But it's a daunting task."

Taylor said agencies have been given few resources for making and monitoring their performance plans. Moreover, agencies still are learning how to measure performance, she said.


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