GAO: Metrics, leadership leave savings unclear in data center consolidation

Congressional committee leaders seeking insight into the ongoing effort to reduce the number of federal data centers were unhappy over OMB and GSA officials' absence at field hearing.

GAO's David Powner and Bernard Mazer from the Interior Department prepare to testify at a field hearing on data center consolidation. GSA's David McClure and U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel did not attend. (Photo by Frank Konkel)

The Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative was supposed to save billions of taxpayer dollars through optimized IT efforts and reduced redundancy. A new Government Accountability Office report, however, warns that poor leadership and a lack of metrics mean the total savings over the past three are almost impossible to measure.

The report, released during a May 14 field hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, states that federal agencies have made some progress toward reaching the initiative's goal of closing 1,253 data center closures by 2015. Yet only $63 million in documented savings and cost avoidance would be achieved by the end of fiscal year 2013, GAO found.

The report, the third GAO has produced regarding FDCCI since it was created in 2010, also highlighted a lack of leadership from the three bodies charged with overseeing the initiative: the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration and the FDCCI joint task force.

Dave Powner, GAO's director of IT management issues, and Interior Department Chief Information Officer Bernard Mazer, who also chairs the FDCCI joint task force, both fought the traffic to Fairfax and testified. U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel and David McClure, the General Services Administration's associate administrator for the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, were invited but did not attend.

Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., who convened the hearing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said that that lack of leadership was evident in OMB and GSA officials declining to testify. "I'm not a happy camper that GSA and OMB have not provided us a witness this morning, but we will schedule another hearing and we will pull them in voluntarily or however we have to do it," Mica said. "This is about saving taxpayers significant sums of money... we need answers."

Cost savings have not been tracked effectively because OMB, the agency responsible for tracking the initiative's goals, has not determined a consistent and repeatable method for doing so throughout the government, the report found. Of all 24 agencies that fall under FDCCI, only one – the Defense Department – has detailed any planned savings through the end of fiscal year 2014, and it expects to save $575 million. The other 23 agencies did not report any cost savings to GAO through FDCCI, and the initiative's recent integration to PortfolioStat in March further muddied the reporting waters.

"Total cost savings to date from data center consolidation efforts have not been determined, creating uncertainty as to whether OMB will be able to meet its original cost savings goal of $3 billion by the end of 2015," Powner testified. "In the absence of tracking and reporting on cost savings and additional time for agencies to achieve planned savings, OMB will be challenged in ensuring that the initiative, under this new direction, is meeting its established objectives."

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who is the ranking member on the subcommittee and in whose district the field hearing was held, said "it is imperative, especially in budget contraction, to try to achieve efficiencies," before characterizing the government's effort thus far as "not an 'A'."

"To some it's a dry topic, but data center consolidation is at the cutting edge of the argument of 'Can the government do what the private sector has done?'" Connolly said.

Connolly said $20 billion of the total $80 billion spent on federal IT annually is spent in "less than optimum ways" like maintaining outdated legacy systems.

Data center consolidation "is an important part of the larger picture," Connolly said. "We have got to reach the OMB goal of reduction and we want to go beyond that."

The report's release earned swift attention from other oversight bodies on Capitol Hill.

"OMB was right in 2010 to establish an initiative to consolidate duplicative data centers, but today's GAO report shows that progress has not been satisfactory and raises significant concerns," said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

"I encourage OMB to quickly institute the procedural reforms the GAO has outlined to improve their implementation effort and to ensure responsibilities are being fully executed. These include making changes to reporting requirements, bettering coordination between various administrative actors, and enhancing oversight of agency consolidations."

The committee's Chairman, Tom Carper, D-Del., added that Congress will be paying attention to how closely agencies stick with their consolidation plans and said it was critical that OMB and agencies get with the program and report savings.

Certainly, Hill players will watch and see whether OMB, GSA and the joint task force heeds the latest recommendations by GAO, beginning with those directed at OMB and federal CIO Steve VanRoekel. They are: • Track and annually report on key data center consolidation performance measures, such as the size of data centers being closed and cost savings to date;

• Extend the time frame for achieving cost savings related to data center consolidation beyond the current 2015 horizon, to allow time to meet the initiative's planned cost savings goal; and

• Establish a mechanism to ensure that the established responsibilities of designated data center consolidation oversight organizations are fully executed, including responsibility for the documentation and oversight of the peer review process, the review of agencies' updated consolidation inventories and plans, and approval of updated consolidation plans.

Whether these goals are realized may depend heavily on oversight from the Hill. As Powner and Mica alluded to May 14, GSA, one of the agencies charged with overseeing FDCCI, updated its planned data center closings on the government's data.gov portal from zero to 74 in response to the announced hearing.

"We sometimes can get some things moving along, and that's part of this process of constant oversight we are responsible for in this subcommittee," Mica said.

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