Defining redundancy

Officials at the Office of Management and Budget have common sense on their side when they talk about ways to eliminate redundant spending on information technology across government. But they should not be surprised, or disappointed, if their plans do not play out as they hoped.

The issue has surfaced numerous times in the past year, most recently earlier this month, when OMB Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. said the Bush administration would be looking for redundancies in the IT plans of agencies slated to join the proposed Homeland Security Department.

OMB is taking a similar approach to e-government, forcing agencies to pool their resources on projects of common interest.

And administration officials hope to improve their ability to identify overlaps as part of an upgrade to the Federal Data Procurement System, which tracks IT buying across government (see Page 59).

The problem is that redundancy comes in shades of gray, not in black and white. Although it's convenient to discuss the federal government as if it were a single entity, individual departments have developed their own way of doing work, based on the particulars of their mission, and their IT systems reflect those differences.

No doubt OMB will be able to streamline IT spending in e-government, homeland security and other areas, but OMB officials also might meet some justifiably stiff resistance. It brings to mind the struggles many agencies have had with commercial off-the-shelf software.

Common sense says agencies will save money and avoid trouble if they use commercial software as it was designed, rather than customize it. Unfortunately, the more complex the software, the less often this plan works. Witness the continuing problems agencies have had buying financial management software in recent years.

At what point does the need to reduce spending override the interests of individual agencies? That is a question OMB officials will have to ask repeatedly as they trim spending, and they should not expect simple answers.

It's not a perfect system. But perhaps the perfect system is one that tolerates imperfections.

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