Coburn follows the money on IT

Subcommittee to focus on the bottom line

Sen. Tom Coburn is not an IT expert, nor does he want to be thought of as one. But his interest in controlling spending could have a significant impact on technology projects across government.

The junior Republican senator from Oklahoma and chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, shies away from comparisons to House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.).

But Coburn, a family doctor by trade, has made clear that when money is at stake—the president proposed $64 billion for IT alone in his fiscal 2007 budget proposal—he will be paying attention. “There is an oversight vacuum in Congress,” Coburn’s spokesman John Hart said. “If anything, Tom Coburn wants to be known as an ‘oversight guru’ who will relentlessly root out wasteful spending in as many areas of government as possible.”

Because Coburn is one of the driving forces behind the so-called “Google of Good Government Act” legislation that would require the Office of Management and Budget to establish a searchable database tracking all kinds of federal spending, most in the federal IT community are familiar with his interests.

The House approved the bill last week (see story below).

Between the bill and a recent hearing on OMB’s IT project management watch lists, Coburn made it clear that he will expand his focus on IT, which did not exactly surprise agency and industry officials.

Different perspective

“You don’t associate Sen. Coburn with IT issues,” said an agency CIO who requested anonymity. “I think [he will have] a totally different perspective” than Davis, who takes a more defined approach. “It’ll be interesting to see what he focuses on.”

An administration official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that any additional oversight is helpful.

“He’s definitely taking an interest” in IT, the official said. “Good oversight is a good thing.”

For Coburn, Hart said, there is really only one issue—money.

A recent Government Accountability Office report found that 253 out of 857 agency IT projects, totaling roughly $12 billion for fiscal year 2007, were underperforming and in danger of being over budget.

David Powner, director of IT management issues at GAO, said OMB’s two-track approach to monitoring high-risk projects is faulty and susceptible to inaccuracies. OMB’s method includes a management watch list, which the administration started in fiscal 2002, and quarterly high-risk reports, in which agencies identify mission-critical IT projects that are behind schedule and over budget.

Agencies inconsistently apply OMB’s requirements for both lists, meaning that several projects that should be considered at-risk are being left off, Powner said. He particularly highlighted the Defense Department’s Defense Travel System, which since its 1998 award, has run well over budget and behind schedule.

GAO’s findings sparked Coburn’s attention. “During a time when our country is fighting a costly war, still struggling to recover from natural disasters, and unsure how to prevent the bankruptcy of Social Security and Medicare, we can’t afford to throw away $12 billion this year, or any year, on IT projects,” Hart said.

For now, the senator’s main focus will be on OMB’s oversight of high-risk IT projects. He is drafting a letter to agencies seeking details on high-risk IT projects. Agencies must provide data on how the initiatives are progressing, if cost overruns are anticipated and what vendor is providing the service.

Coburn, while careful to praise the White House’s efforts, said he believes that much more oversight is needed.

“The ability of us to manage IT needs to be strengthened,” Coburn said in opening his hearing earlier this month. “The idea that we have contracts underperforming our costs tells me we have problems.”

During the hearing, Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator of E-government and IT, indicated that she would share the watch list data with Coburn’s subcommittee in order to provide more clarity to the process.

She also said she will ask the inspector general community to take a broader role in ensuring that agencies are proposing solid business cases for their IT investments.

“The administration takes its responsibility of planning, managing and measuring the results of these investments seriously,” said Andrea Wuebker, an OMB spokeswoman.
Coburn’s “hearing provided a good opportunity to both review what measures we currently have in place, as well as look for new ways to refine our oversight.”

Perhaps the best means of refining this oversight, Coburn said, is to develop a more proactive management process. The biggest problem with the watch lists and other oversight practices is that they are designed to find problems after the money already has been spent.

Close watch

The senator “wants to focus on making sure OMB is vigilant in keeping agencies accountable for assessing their projects before they ever receive funding, not after,” Hart said.

This is particularly true when OMB’s own watch lists find that 31 percent of all IT projects are poorly planned, he said.

“The problem that I have is that we’re working backward, not forward,” Coburn told Evans during the hearing. “What you’re doing is auditing.”

Although OMB promised to share the watch lists data with Coburn, the administration official admitted that OMB is a bit cautious about turning over this information.

“Up until now [OMB] had the ability to put things on and take them off [the list] and use them for our resources,” the official said. “When it becomes everyone’s list, it becomes harder to add and remove projects.”

Still, the official is encouraged by Coburn’s interest and is impressed that the senator, while making it clear that he is no IT expert, seems to have a strong grasp of the subject.

“A lot of times members read from a set of prepared questions” during a hearing, the official said. “This looks like someone who’s going to be engaged.”

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