IT spending: When bad news is good news

Improved access to federal spending data bodes well for IT decision-making, writes FCW columnist Chris Bronk

This election season, the American people have ample and good reason to criticize those in positions of power in our federal government. Nearly one in 10 of us remains out of work. Hiring is slow in all sectors, even in IT. We are left to wonder if our economy will double dip into a contracting recession.

But there’s also good news. In the space of a few days, I was greeted with the news that Hewlett-Packard might be able to harness the research of a graduate student at my university to once again sustain the steady march of Moore’s law, which predicts that the number of transistors on a microprocessor will double approximately every two years. Meanwhile, Rackspace, a Web-hosting giant, decided to shut down the Dove World Outreach Center’s Web presence because the organization violated the company’s hate speech provision by threatening to burn the Quran. And the University of Baltimore added a course in zombie studies.

But the best news I heard involved a single figure: $81.9 billion. What is that the price tag for? Continuing operations in Iraq? Total funding for the National Institutes of Health in the past decade? California’s current deficit? No, $81.9 billion is the amount spent by the federal government on IT in fiscal 2010. Happy Fiscal New Year! It’s always appropriate to talk money around Oct. 1, Fiscal New Year time.

But why is this good news? A sum of $80 billion-plus is a lot of money. That’s bad, right? It’s not the number but rather how quickly and easily it can now be found. It’s available at, the federal IT dashboard. For a scholar of government IT, the federal IT dashboard is a godsend. Click, click, click, and I have a good idea of the Agriculture Department’s major IT efforts. Did you know USDA has 48 projects funded for fiscal 2010?

Controversial projects are covered in the dashboard as well, such as Sentinel, the FBI’s Web-based case management system. Most people who follow federal IT know about Sentinel and its scary-bad precursor project, the Virtual Case File. Look over the Sentinel dashboard and you'll see a nice, classic analog-looking dial of the sort that we’re used to seeing when behind the wheel.

Unfortunately for Sentinel, that dial’s needle is stuck in the red zone, rated 2.5 out of 10. Like any numerical scale, it begs asking, “How did they arrive at that number?” Well, it’s pretty simple. The dashboard number is a calculation of cost and schedule variance with the program plan coupled with a numeric rating, between 1 and 5, from the agency CIO, in this case the Justice Department’s Vance Hitch. In Sentinel’s case, Hitch decided to override the calculation and give the program, which he has called highly complex, an overall 2.5 rating.

Sentinel is not the only federal IT project in trouble. There are at least two dozen other projects to pick on, according to federal CIO Vivek Kundra. Each one of them, cost overruns and delays clearly marked, falls inside the dashboard. Why? As Kundra said, “The focus here is to make sure they are turned around. If they cannot [be], we will take action. They will be discontinued.”

At a time when we must balance the need for additional stimulus with concerns of piling on ever more debt, the dashboarding exercise for federal IT is a positive sign. Some IT projects might be impossible or unnecessary. Even more important, however, is that we see what is working and, when necessary, reach out and ask why or how. A lot of IT works right in the federal government. We just need to learn how to manage expectations and reduce costs whenever possible. That’s what taxpayers deserve.


About the Author

Chris Bronk is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct instructor of computer science at Rice. He previously served as a Foreign Service Officer and was assigned to the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.


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