HUD IT under house arrest

In a rare public rebuke, Congress recently criticized the Department of

Housing and Urban Development for its poor personnel management practices

and for siphoning money from its information technology budget to cover

unrelated expenses.

HUD can't accurately portray how much it needs for salaries and expenses

and has never produced an accurate hiring plan, according to Congress. Because

of this, HUD repeatedly "raided" its IT budget to pay for salaries and other

personnel expenses, lawmakers said in the conference report accompanying

the agency's 2001 appropriations bill. This practice, they said, "significantly

delayed HUD's entry to the Information Age."

Lawmakers ordered HUD to spend only $758 million next year for salaries

and expenses and gave the agency a May 15, 2001, deadline to come up with

a multiyear budget plan for its IT systems and a plan for staff resources.

It also restricted how many new managers it could hire from outside the

agency.

Congress also put up an invisible fence around IT spending and ordered

the housing agency to spend at least $100 million in fiscal 2001 strictly

on IT projects. The conferees said they hope HUD will use the IT tools "in

a constructive manner" to deal with its serious management issues.

This is the first time Congress has told the agency how to spend its

IT money, but the timing is urgent. "Their information technology office

has been a disaster," said one congressional source.

Lawmakers "have been concerned for some time about HUD's implementation

of high-technology applications, which have not been pursued in a cost-effective

way," said Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations

Committee's Veterans Affairs, HUD and Independent Agencies Subcommittee.

"I think with this legislation, Congress has expressed its displeasure

with the agency's inability to make full use of modern information technology

in storing and retrieving statistics and information. There is no excuse

for this pattern of inefficiency, and we expect to see results," Hobson

added.

A source on the subcommittee that handled the HUD budget said it was

impossible to tell just where the housing agency was spending its money.

"Every year, they ask for significant amounts of money to get their

systems up-to-date, and yet year in and year out, they make poor decisions

about information technology," the source said.

It's not the first time that HUD has run into trouble over hiring policies.

In 1997, HUD published its 2020 Management Reform Plan, which would downsize

the agency to 7,500 workers and root out waste, fraud and abuse. HUD currently

has a workforce of around 9,000 full-time employees.

Last year, the National Academy of Public Administration reported that

the staffing levels were inadequate for the department's mission and contradicted

HUD's own reform plan.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is investigating

the department's plan to hire 900 new people in the final days of the Clinton

administration. Mica is concerned that HUD may use the hiring program to

allow political appointees to keep their jobs as career civil servants.

He said the "hiring binge smacks of poor planning, wrongdoing and apparent

incompetence."

HUD's chief information officer, Gloria Parker, declined to comment

on the report. Susan Gaffney, HUD's inspector general, said no one had asked

her to look into the allegations, but she declined to comment further.

In response to repeated requests, HUD spokeswoman Veda Lamar issued

a statement saying, "We believe the committee drew the wrong conclusion

from the facts it cites."

She pointed out that HUD submitted to the subcommittee its annual performance

plan that "reflected its staffing requirements based upon a review of its

programmatic responsibilities. This provides a clear analytical basis for

HUD's current staffing plans," she said.

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