GAO Cautions State Dept. on Knowledge Management Project

The General Accounting Office is questioning whether the State Department is prepared to handle a worldwide rollout of a new knowledge management system that is just approaching the prototype evaluation stage.

The information sharing system, the Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration System, will tie together U.S. agencies that have offices in 260 embassies and consulates throughout the world. OPICS will enable an anticipated 40,000 to 50,000 federal users to collaborate and share data. The system will make use of commercially available hardware and software, and establish a common framework for administrative and policy activities.

A GAO report, "Information Technology: State Department-Led Overseas Modernization Program Faces Management Challenges," said the State Department has adequate, though informal, management controls in place to keep the project on track through its prototype and pilot stages, which are set to conclude in September 2002.

But in the report released Nov. 16, the GAO recommended that the department needs "a much greater level of management discipline" to take the system to the operational level globally, especially because it will involve multiple agencies and their mission-critical work.

"Without these more rigorous controls, it is unlikely that State and its agency partners will deliver needed operational system capabilities on time and within budget," the report said.

In particular, the GAO stressed the need for the State Department to implement incremental investment practices. "Otherwise, it risks making a single, monolithic investment decision for the entire program," the report said. "This 'all or nothing' approach to investing in IT has historically resulted in agencies investing huge sums of money in systems that do not provide commensurate benefits... The need to avoid this pitfall was a major impetus for the investment management reforms of the Clinger-Cohen Act."

The State Department disagreed with the GAO recommendations, in large part because there has been no final decision about which of the many agencies involved will ultimately take the lead for the final stage.

The State Department regards OPICS as a high priority project. The department is investing $17 million in the prototype and pilot stages of the program, and its price tag is likely to run in excess of $300 million for the full implementation, according to a departmental spokesman. It also has attained high visibility post-Sept. 11, with Tom Ridge, director of the new Office of Homeland Security, interested in it as a possible model for other agencies' collaboration efforts.

The three systems integrators currently developing prototypes competing for use in the pilot are Accenture Ltd., Hamilton, Bermuda; Science Applications International Corp., San Diego; and SRA International Inc., Fairfax, Va.

Among the GAO's recommendations:

* Explicitly defining a multi-agency governance and funding structure for acquiring and deploying the system;

* Ensuring that time and resources and invested in economically justified, architecturally compliant increments of the operational system, and verifying that increments meet return-on-investment expectations before investing heavily in later increments;

* Having and using an overseas-presence enterprise architecture as a blueprint to guide and constrain system investments; and

* Having and following mature and disciplined software acquisition management capabilities.

The report was prepared at the request of the House International Relations Committee, chaired by Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

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