OMB puts agencies on notice

The fiscal 2004 funding for hundreds of information technology projects could be delayed if agencies do not shore up their management plans, according to Bush administration officials.

More than 700 projects, representing about $21 billion of the total $59.3 billion IT budget request for 2004, are "at risk," Office of Management and Budget officials said. The agencies running them have not developed adequate business plans by laying out objectives and performance goals, or have fallen short of goals that have already been set, officials said. Some projects also made the list because of inadequate information security measures.

Agencies have until, Oct. 1, the beginning of the government's fiscal year, to fix the problems and resubmit their management plans, and OMB officials expect many projects to drop off the list. But that deadline probably is out of reach for some agencies.

OMB is likely to hold up funding for more than 300 projects, even if Congress appropriates the money, according to Mark Forman, associate director for IT and e-government at OMB. "They have to get a qualified project manager, they've got to lay out a decent work breakdown structure and have milestones," Forman said. "That was one of the things we tightened up this year, and how many of those are we going to get done?"

Forman declined to release the list of at-risk IT programs, but said many are managed by agencies that have received low scores — red or yellow — on the e-government part of the President's Management Agenda.

OMB is making "a heavy-duty effort" to work with agencies to fix the problems, he said. But they are not likely to let something go forward without that management structure in place. "This is not rocket science, this is nuts-and-bolts project management," he said.

The at-risk list is an offshoot of a 2002 revision of OMB Circular A-11, which defines the rules for budget planning. A-11 requires agencies to develop business cases for all major e-government and IT projects. The cases must include information such as a project's objectives, the tools for measuring its performance, the financial plan and an account of how it fits into the agency's modernization blueprint.

The at-risk list should get the attention of IT managers who did not believe the White House would actually put projects on probation, said Barry White, director of government performance at the Council for Excellence in Government. "You've got to be careful and not get too enthusiastic about it all, but the potential for doing some serious good is here," he said.

Many agencies were able to move some of their projects off the list before the administration released the budget, but they are still determined to remove the rest before fiscal 2004 begins, a senior OMB official said.

"All through this year, you're going to see that in fact agencies are making progress and projects are coming off of the at-risk list," the official said. "So when we get ready to start fiscal year 2004, we can actually say and show in documentation [that] we funded projects that can make the business case."

The biggest handicap for some agencies is a lack of project managers who are qualified to oversee increasingly complex IT programs, Forman said. "We don't have enough project managers or solutions architects who are certified or trained appropriately for the type of work we are asking them to do," he said.

The Office of Personnel Management and the CIO Council have been working together to develop a project management training program, and the Bush administration is committed to building its management ranks, Forman said.

"We have to focus on getting the right skill sets within government and building up the people we've got, if we're going to see a lot of improvements," he said.

But experts agree that finding enough of those people, training them and getting them in place in the next eight months is highly unlikely. "It's not an easy thing to have a quick fix for," said Fred Thompson, former assistant director for consulting and marketing in the Treasury Department's chief information officer's office.

Training "is an important step, but experience is an important piece of that," he said. "I don't think that anyone can be a top-flight program manager without that experience, and that cannot be acquired quickly."

Forman has asked industry to help agencies with their business cases and project management for more than a year. Many companies have stepped forward, and agencies are starting to take advantage, said Laura Nash, a vice president at Robbins-Gioia LLC, which specializes in program management services.

"There are some champions who are really grasping the benefits, and like any change management process, there are some lagging behind," Nash said. "But there are enough seeing the benefits to really drive this forward."

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the new chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, has kept close track of how OMB is handling the IT business cases and is encouraged by the administration's commitment to not release funding for projects with questionable management. "We support a process that allows successful IT projects to move forward, while forcing agencies to fix ineffective and inefficient ones," said Davis' spokesman, David Marin. "More spending serves no purpose without better management."

The Bush administration may be providing the push that has been needed to truly address the project management problem as well, White said. "It's something that's been observed for some time, but when you actually print that brutal fact in the president's document, that cries out for a response," he said.

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