Though the federal government has made considerable strides in streamlining and modernizing its $80 billion IT operation, those efforts have been slowed by loose reporting about failing investments and weak CIO authorities across the agencies, a panel of senior officials told members of a House subcommittee on Thursday.
David Powner, director of IT management issues with the Government Accountability Office, allowed that the Obama administration's tech team has put some "excellent initiatives in place," but that their implementation has been slowed by a "poor track record" on large-scale IT projects, while agencies have been erratic in their self-reporting obligations.
Powner referred to the government's ambitious data-center consolidation effort, which at one point operated under an estimate of roughly 3,100 data centers maintained by the various agencies. In the time since, that figure has swelled to more than 6,000, and again, after another review, to around 7,100.
"There are some fundamental questions whether the government really knows what it has, and why there isn't better transparency here," he tells the Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Government Operations Subcommittee.
Similarly, the Department of Defense, which accounts for a little more than 40 percent of the federal IT budget, has not designated a single IT project on an online dashboard that tracks technology expenditures as red, indicating that the project is in danger of failing.
GAO has recently cited agencies for failing to conduct review sessions, known as TechStats, to evaluate the majority of medium- and high- risk investments, finding that among the agencies it evaluated, just 33 percent of at-risk projects had been put through the TechStat evaluation.
U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel was on hand to defend the administration's efforts, and, on the issue of ballooning data-center counts -- a cause of alarm for many lawmakers at the hearing -- he contended that much of the shift can be attributed to a change in the definition of "data center" that he put in place. The initial definition only considered facilities 500 square feet or larger, a designation that has since been discarded "to be more comprehensive and drive better inventory," VanRoekel says.
Office of Management and Budget Dives Deeper Into Reporting and CIO Authorities
Regarding the erratic reporting, headlined by the Defense Department, VanRoekel says that his team at the Office of Management and Budget is looking beyond the data the Pentagon posts on the dashboard, and instead taking a deeper look at issues like budget overages, delays and changing scopes to identify projects that might be at risk.
"It's a fool's errand to track self-reporting," he says.
"The second part of it is CIO authorities. And I think looking at the authority of the CIO, the person whose picture is next to all those investments is (DoD CIO) Teri Takai. Teri Takai has very little influence over most of the investments that you're looking at on that dashboard," he adds.
Lawmakers have acknowledged the challenges that federal CIOs face, both in securing a place at the table with other top agency officials, and in maintaining centralized authority over the patchwork of bureaus and sub-agencies, many with their own CIOs.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) throughout the hearing urged the administration to endorse legislation that passed the House earlier this year that would, among other things, raise the profile of CIOs at the major agencies.
Connolly called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, the "friendliest, most sympathetic bill you're going to get out of Congress." The House included FITARA in the Defense authorization bill it passed in June.
Should the administration reject FITARA in pursuit of an alternate bid for federal IT legislation, Connolly predicts: "You're going to have problems on both sides of the aisle."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
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