Evans resists GAO on watch lists

There's a better way to oversee troubled information technology projects than aggregating a list of programs with low scores on annual business case evaluations, a top government IT official said today.

"Overemphasis on the management watch list may have unintended consequences," said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator of e-government and IT while testifying before the House Government Reform Committee.

Each year, a dozen OMB analysts score agency business case submissions, the so-called Exhibit 300s. Analysts place business cases with a low score on an “OMB management watch list,” though no effort is made to aggregate watch list projects together in a single list.

A report released today by the Government Accountability Office recommends that OMB begin making the watch list a formal tool for oversight and develop a process for ensuring that agency officials correct those projects. OMB officials disagree despite congressional pressure to do so, however.

“In our opinion, the current follow-up that does occur may leave unattended weak projects consuming significant budget dollars,” said David Powner, GAO director of IT management issues, testifying before the committee.

“Just having a list tracking these areas where you can go back gives a level of transparency and would make it easier to manage,” said Rep. Tom Davis, (R-Va.), the committee's chairman.

Of the 1,087 major IT projects proposed for fiscal 2006, 342 projects collectively worth $15 billion scored low enough for watch list classification. Corrective actions taken this year have reduced that number to 248, Evans said.

The Exhibit 300s present static snapshots of agency plans, Evans said. “Business cases are primarily planning documents and used as an indicator,” but do not measure the actual execution of agency projects, she said.

Earned value management, a 32-point checklist for project performance compared against the original project milestones that managers must periodically review, already ensures that troubled projects are monitored during execution, Evans said. OMB is also finalizing guidance for agencies "to clarify what high risk means to us," she said.

In addition, agency officials with watch list business cases have until June 30 to submit corrective action plans, Evans said.

Elevating the watch list as a formal oversight tool could "drive certain behavior where people are just checking off the boxes and not really solving the problem," she said. "Is the outcome for us to get the results that was described in the business case, or is the outcome to get good business cases?" she said later, talking to reporters outside the hearing room.

Exhibit 300s requires project managers to detail their program and risk management methods, Evans said. But earned value management produces actual data, she said. "You take all the planning numbers that you said in your business case, and then you have to track your output, your execution,” Evans said.

Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, (D-Md.) asked Evans why OMB was unable to prevent several high-profile projects such as the FBI’s Virtual Case File from failing.

Earlier OMB oversight centered on planning documents like the Exhibit 300s rather than earned value management, Evans said. "A lot of our activities are focused in planning," she said. "The failure of Virtual Case File was actually in execution."

"We can blame the agencies, but at the end of the day, it starts and stops with OMB," Davis said in response.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.


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