Transparency

GAO: Agencies need to improve IT Dashboard data

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A Government Accountability Office report released Jan. 13 suggests a need for more accurate and timely data flowing to the federal IT Dashboard if the Office of Management and Budget is to properly manage IT investment risk.

The dashboard, launched in 2009, is designed to provide a transparent, public-facing look at the performance of major IT investments categorized according to their risk of failure: low, moderately low, medium, high or moderately high.

GAO has been critical of agency use of the dashboard before, and in the latest report, auditors found discrepancies between how CIOs assessed IT projects compared with how they should be assessing those projects.

Of the 80 investments auditors reviewed -- 10 each at eight agencies -- CIOs had rated 53 of them in a manner consistent with investment risk, based on supporting documentation obtained by GAO. However, 20 ratings were only partially consistent, and seven were inconsistent. The Department of Veterans Affairs was the biggest offender, with three CIO assessments partially consistent with supporting documentation and seven ratings inconsistent with documentation. That means none of the 10 VA investments reviewed by GAO was being reported properly to the dashboard website.

Other departments lacked proper transparency to a lesser degree. The Agriculture Department had eight partial inconsistencies, the Energy Department had five, and the Commerce Department had two. On the plus side, the projects at the departments of Transportation and Treasury were entirely consistent with documentation.

 

GAO attributed inconsistent ratings to a number of reasons, including delays in updating the dashboard and the ways in which investment performance is tracked. OMB does not update the dashboard's public-facing website while the president's budget is being created, which resulted in no updates for 15 of the past 24 months and major lapses in transparency.

Justice, for example, downgraded an investment in July 2012, yet the dashboard was not updated to reflect that change until April 2013. GAO also cited the Social Security Administration for resetting baselines for project cost and schedule performance annually, calling it "an approach that increases the risk of undetected cost or schedule variances that will impact investment success."

The report also takes issue with how some agencies reclassified certain IT investments as other budgetary expenses. DOE reclassified several supercomputer investments from IT to "facilities," while Commerce reclassified its satellite ground system investments, according to the report.

"Both decisions resulted in the removal of investments from the dashboard, even though the investments were clearly IT," the report states.

However, auditors said agencies made effective use of TechStat sessions for seven of the eight highest-risk IT investments in 2012. The sessions are evidence-based reviews that produce action items for improving a risky investment's performance. TechStat sessions have identified approximately $4 billion in savings since 2010.

GAO's chief recommendation is that OMB "make dashboard information available independent of the budget process, and that agencies appropriately categorize IT investments and address identified weaknesses."

OMB did not agree or disagree with the report, but U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel reiterated the agency's commitment to transparency in his written response to GAO.

He also addressed what OMB officials believe are factual inaccuracies in the report. Although the public dashboard was not updated during the budget development process, federal agencies and OMB "have continued to have access -- throughout the year, including during those periods -- to IT Dashboard information that is up-to-date," VanRoekel wrote.

OMB also took issue with GAO's assessment that CIO ratings could be updated independently of the budget process, saying that it is not practical to do so now but officials would be willing to explore other options.

 

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

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