IT projects left in cold by budget muddle

As Congress plays ping-pong with the federal budget, agencies are planning to delay new information technology projects until they receive fiscal 2003 funds.

Although Congress was supposed to approve a fiscal 2003 budget by Oct. 1, it is bogged down with details but plans a series of short-term spending bills to keep the government operating at its current levels, possibly into next year. On Oct. 10, the House passed a new measure to fund government operations through Oct. 18 and abandoned a plan to adjourn for the year at the end of last week.

And with a freeze on IT projects related to homeland security and uncertainty about next year's budget, federal officials are cautious about where and when the money will flow.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said Oct. 8 that the temporary funding measure is making life difficult for the Transportation Security Administration, which was established in the wake of last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"TSA is especially disadvantaged by this process," Mineta said, "because it does not have money from previous years to help bridge the gaps between its programmatic needs and the funding it receives under the continuing resolution."

It is proving difficult, he said, "as we strive to meet our upcoming statutory deadlines for airport security."

Mineta said he was working with Congress and the Bush administration to ensure that TSA has the money it needs. But its situation is similar to that of other agencies left hanging by the congressional budget stalemate.

The Office of Personnel Management is "not planning to stop any projects that are ongoing or already under way," said Janet Barnes, chief information officer at OPM, at a breakfast sponsored by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association's Bethesda, Md., chapter late last month.

Despite OPM's plans, Barnes said, officials may be "forced to delay new projects or the next step in current projects."

Other agencies are finding themselves in the same situation. John Gauss, CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency is able to adjust as long as the situation does not continue long.

But "if it carries to midyear [2003], it will get hard" and impact new projects, Gauss said.

Most agencies plan for budget delays, and they have spent years working around the political process, according to Ken Johnson, president of U.S. operations for CACI International Inc.

"If this thing drags out, it will have an adverse effect on new orders," Johnson said. "In fact, it will shut it down. But it's too soon to tell the impact on funding issues."

Nevertheless, CIOs across government are waiting anxiously for the outcome.

If the delay continues, new systems will have to wait for funding, according to Mike Parker, director of IT business planning and assurance for the Treasury Department. "Most major initiatives in fiscal 2002 or before have not been compromised," he said. "Any money for new systems would have to be put on hold until the appropriations process is through."

It may be a guessing game for a while, according to Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Division of the Information Technology Association of America. The stalemate could last for weeks or perhaps until January or even March, depending on the outcome of the Nov. 5 elections — and which party ultimately controls the Senate.

Diane Frank, Megan Lisagor and William Matthews contributed to this article.


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