Lawmakers zero in on high-risk IT projects

Lawmakers today expressed frustration and disbelief over the continued shortcomings of information technology projects across the federal government.

Because research by committee staff members has found that one in five information technology projects in government needed to be rebaselined and one in six projects don't have qualified project managers, some senators questioned how much of the $65 billion agencies spend on IT is being wasted.

"The Office of Management and Budget must address the root causes of these problem projects," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee.

"Maybe projects shouldn't go forward until they have a qualified project manager," Coburn said. "It may delay the project, but it will save money and the end result will be better."

At a hearing on IT management, Coburn questioned why the Office of Management and Budget continues to allow agencies to invest in and run projects that are on the administration's High-Risk and Management Watch lists. OMB puts projects or initiatives on the High Risk List if they are either complex, high profile or high cost, and on the Management Watch List if they are poorly planned.

Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for IT and e-government, said her office analyzes why the projects are on the lists and works with agencies to remediate any problems.

"We look at whether the problems are systematic or just with the particular agency," Evans told lawmakers. "We may not be as transparent as people would like us to be, but we do a lot of analysis."

Evans said OMB quarterly reviews projects on the lists to ensure agencies have a proper acquisition strategy or proper performance outcomes.

"We also look at whether there is a policy or execution problem or whether there needs to be a realignment of resources," she said.

Because OMB doesn't share that analysis of why agency IT projects have problems, David Powner, the Government Accountability Office's director of IT, said his agency has no way to know how accurate the data is and believes agencies are underestimating the total number of projects with problems.

"Some projects have multiple shortfalls, but the most common is cost, schedule and performance," Powner said. "Other problems we have seen are no clear starting baseline and projects without qualified project managers."

Powner added that poor planning is the biggest reason agencies have trouble with IT projects. He also estimated about $10 billion worth of projects are at risk.

Coburn said he would request GAO to look further into why projects are not on the high-risk list and others are.

Evans said she would look into releasing some of the analysis to Congress and GAO, but cautioned that the Management Watch list is a planning document, so specifics are hard to release.

But she said the focus shouldn't be on the lists.

The focus, Evans says, should be on ensuring that agencies are doing the right things to make sure they receive value for the investments.

Jason Miller writes for Government Computer News and Federal Computer Week, 1105 Government Information Group publications.

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