OMB struggles to track $80 billion IT spending by government

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IT Dashboard attempts to tracks billions of dollars spent by the federal government on information technology, but the website itself has out of date information and inaccurate ratings on the investment risks of some agency projects.

Federal investments for IT improvements have a tendency to run over budget, or in the worst of scenarios, fail to meet any projected goals. While the private sector has seen blinding technological advancement in a relatively short time, federal agencies have struggled to keep up, even with a government-wide IT budget of $79.5 billion for fiscal 2011.

With so much need for technology upgrade, government IT investments sometimes stumble by trying to tackle too much in a given project or setting unrealistic deadlines. The Veterans Affairs Department is a frequent offender, wasting $300 million in the past 10 years, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The OMB created the IT Dashboard to provide real-time data about IT investments at each government department and agency, but the website’s own performance has room for improvement.

“It’s fair to say that it has been a mixed bag,” said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT. “The idea of the IT Dashboard is great, but the execution and methodology leave something to be desired.”

The site tracks the cost of an IT project, budget overruns, and schedule delays, then combines the factors to calculate a 1 to 10 rating of the investment risk level. The risk rating also uses milestones provided by each agency to determine an investment’s progress. Unfortunately, 67 percent of the milestones are at least five months old.

The VA Department’s information appears to be so outdated and incomplete that nearly one-third of its IT investments are ranked as areas of “significant concern” on the IT Dashboard. That makes the VA the lowest-ranked government agency, at 2.7 (rating as of July 29, 2010), in terms of IT improvement success.

The Pentagon, which spends more than $35 billion annually on IT, is a prime example of how investment success ratings are skewed when based on incomplete, inconsistent data. The Defense Department has an overall ranking of 7.4 even though a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report earlier this month found that the behemoth of government IT spending has updated some of its projects only five or six times in an entire year. Contrast this frequency with the much smaller Department of Education that has updated its $795 million annual IT investment information anywhere from 16 to over 100 times but is penalized with a ranking of just 5.6. Clearly, standardization is needed to make IT Dashboard an accurate tracking resource, according to the GAO.

A recent upgrade by the OMB to the IT Dashboard site rectifies some of the problems. “The train is moving really quick. OMB is quite responsive to [the GAO] recommendations and there are improvements continually happening,” said David Powner, GAO director of information technology. “We still suggested that OMB report on how that upgrade is actually improving performance. We will continue to look at the accuracy and reliability of the data.”

The website will remain unreliable until the OMB can hold government agencies to a higher level of IT transparency and regular reporting, the GAO said.

“I wouldn’t expect a mechanism like the IT Dashboard to get it right on the first try,” said King. “The history of IT projects in the federal government has been so spotty, that it’s important to keep a light shining on them.”

ABOUT THE DATA:

What: Graphical analysis of IT investments across federal government

Where: http://it.usaspending.gov/

Availability: Online, but limited to what agencies self-report

Format: Interactive graphs, databases only downloadable in comma-separated value format

The Data Mine is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation.

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