GAO Can't Measure Infotech Benefits

In its new oversight role, OMB should look at the government's overall infotech investment portfolio -- not individual programs

P> The government spends at least $25 billion on information technology annually, but it is difficult to measure what the government specifically gets in return for the investments, a government official said.


Christopher Hoenig, the General Accounting Office's director of information resources management policies and issues, said the $25 billion figure represents only specific infotech expenses that agencies report to the Office of Management and Budget. "This information is not comprehensive or collected on a governmentwide basis. Therefore, the total amount of annual spending for IT is unknown," he told the House Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology.

For example, agencies do not have to report infotech expenses under $50 million, and the legislative and judicial branches do not have to provide infotech data to OMB. Infotech spending on embedded weapons and federally funded research on computers also do not have to be reported. For embedded software alone, the Defense Department estimates that it spends $24 billion to $32 billion annually.

In the first of the subcommittee's planned series of hearings on infotech policies this year, Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., focused on how government agencies can learn from the way private industry manages infotech assets and investments. The procurement reform bill that was passed last year as an addendum to the defense bill directs federal agencies to assign chief information officers, as many large corporations do.

But Hoenig said OMB must outline stringent requirements for the new positions. The CIOs, he added, must have technical and business experience, and a proven track record. The OMB, with its new infotech oversight role, should have examiners that operate almost as investment portfolio managers who track where investments should be made and what returns those investments generate, Hoenig suggested. They should look at the government's whole infotech investment portfolio, but not act as individual program management auditors, he explained.

The government's push to adopt more commercial-like buying and management practices, in large part, has been fueled by the procurement reform measures passed by Congress during the last two years. Government and industry officials believe that the previous acquisition regulations, such as the Brooks Act, restricted agencies' abilities to get the most current technology and effectively manage big development efforts.

Despite the government's push to operate more like industry, Peter Huber, senior fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, said federal agencies still are slow to change. For example, even with the Paperwork Reduction Act, the government continues to treat paper as the official version of a document. Private organizations know that they should receive information electronically from suppliers, customers and partners.

"If the record is worth keeping at all, it is worth keeping the cheap way, which is electronically," Huber said. "Any private sector organization attempting to manage the vast volumes of information that flow in and out of the federal government would already have migrated most of it on to standard electronic formats," he said.

FEDERAL AGENCY INFOTECH SPENDING (FY 1996)

AGENCYBUDGET OBLIGATION

Navy$2.2B

Air Force$1.9B

Army$1.8B

Other Defense Dept. agencies$3.2B

Transportation$2.7B

Health & Human Services $2.3B

Treasury$2.1B

Energy$1.6B

NASA$1.6B

Agriculture$1.1B

Justice$1 B

Other civilian agencies$5.1B

Source: Office of Management and Budget


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