Cutting the IT Gordian knot

For years, Congress has complied with presidential requests to increase the federal information technology budget—sometimes by double-digit amounts. After all, technology, like health care, is a politically safe budget item to increase. It improves the quality of life.

The result is a $45 billion IT budget—tens of billions of dollars more when classified intelligence IT spending is included, according to some industry groups. Still, chief information officers and IT program managers say that amount is not enough given agency's complex missions and the fact that some IT areas, such as security, suffer from gross underfunding.

But now Mark Forman, associate director of information technology and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, wants agencies to make a business case for the funding they want by explaining, in short, how they are spending their current IT dollars.

It won't be easy. No one can pinpoint what level of IT spending is appropriate, as federal IT experts point out. To begin answering the question, some federal CIOs suggest deciding what an agency's overall objective is and then forming an IT budget that supports that goal. If the objective is grandiose, the IT budget may have to be grandiose as well.

Like most other government spending, eliminating duplication and combining purchases under an enterprisewide architecture surely would save money. But much of the IT infrastructure needs long-overdue upgrades, especially information security. Can enough savings be found to pay for such systems? We must wait to see what magic agencies and OMB can conjure.

One thing is certain: The Bush administration and Congress will want agencies to tell them what taxpayers are getting for the $45 billion-plus that is spent on IT. The pressure is on, and it will only increase. As we have seen with previous battles over big-ticket items such as national defense and health care, it will not be an easy one to resolve.

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