Agencies Struggle to Evaluate Technology Expenses

With new performance measuring software, the Coast Guard now can quickly compare the hours its planes fly and its cutters steam with the times and locations of distress calls and the number of people it rescues — or with the amount of cocaine it seizes.

The comparisons help the Coast Guard better plan for where and when to deploy its ships, planes and personnel to accomplish the most with the fewest resources, Lt. Cmdr. Terrence Keenan, a Coast Guard computer specialist said Monday.

The service's "decision support/executive information system" for the first time links numerous Coast Guard databases to produce a clearer picture of where money and effort is being spent and where it is paying off, Keenan said during a meeting of the Government Performance Reform Act Interest Group.

Like the Coast Guard, all federal agencies are coming under increasing pressure to squeeze more productivity out of tight budgets and limited work forces. And many are turning to more sophisticated use of computers to improve their efficiency. But not all the information technology investments are producing such salutary results.

Survey results announced Monday show that "very little progress is being made" by government agencies toward demonstrating that investments in computers are improving the productivity of the federal government, said Pat Plunkett, a business strategist and program analyst for the General Services Administration. That doesn't mean computer systems aren't contributing to better performance, Plunkett said. But it shows that measuring improvement is difficult.

The survey, which Plunkett said was "unscientific," also showed that government computer workers are suspicious of efforts to quantify computer system performance. "There is a lot of cynicism" among agency information technology workers, who think efforts to quantify computer performance are little more than a "paper exercise," he said.

The growing pressure on federal agencies to demonstrate that their investments in computer systems are paying off will force federal computer managers to change the way they think about their systems, Plunkett said. "They used to think that because a system was installed and running, it was a major success." In the future, they will have to demonstrate that the system is helping the agency accomplish its goals, he said.

Plunkett said it was clear from the survey that last year many agencies made developing performance measurements a second priority to solving year 2000 computer compliance problems. But with that problem out of the way, Congress is expected to focus much more attention on computer system performance, he said. And the oversight might not be pleasant, he warned.

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