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3/25/2011
11:24 AM
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Budget Ax Threatens Key Federal IT Initiatives

Taking the Congressional hatchet to funds for cloud computing, data center consolidation, transparency, and IT oversight is risky business, and appropriators should reconsider.

Congress could squander billions of dollars in potential taxpayer savings if it kills funding for two federal IT programs that stand to increase government efficiency through cloud computing, data center consolidation, open government, and better project oversight.

The President's proposed fiscal 2011 budget includes $34 million for e-government initiatives and $50 million for the Integrated, Efficient, and Effective Uses of Information Technology (IEEUIT) fund. However, House and Senate resolutions would provide only $2 million for e-government and zero out IEEUIT funding completely. Wielding the budget ax in this way would mean that key IT initiatives under these programs would be shuttered, put on life support, or dramatically scaled back.

"We know we can deliver results, because we have already accelerated the delivery of IT functionality, re-scoped and terminated poorly performing projects, and saved money," federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in testimony before Congress last week. "But, we must continue to scale practices that we know work and drive execution to make Federal IT perform at the level the American people expect and deserve."

Consider TechStat, the executive-level project review sessions being carried out across federal government as a way of reigning in tech deployments that are at risk of going over budget or missing deadlines. The reviews are already credited with saving the feds $3 billion by fixing or eliminating troubled IT projects that threatened to become money sinkholes.

Kundra wants to roll out TechStat more broadly, but that won't happen if funding dries up. In testimony before Congress last week, Kundra made the case for expanding the program to keep agency CIOs' feet to the fire. It's a way of identifying problems that don't necessary show up on the government's IT Dashboard, which is based on self-appraisals rather than tough peer reviews. Without those TechStat sessions, untold billions may be wasted.

Funding is also needed for the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, which seeks to reverse the decade-long trend of data center expansion across government. The Office of Management and Budget has set a goal of closing 800 data centers over the next four years, or 40% of existing facilities. Without funding, management of the initiative would shift to the federal CIO Council, which is already cash-strapped and resource-limited. It would be penny wise, but pound foolish to hold back this funding.

Important open government platforms such as USASpending.gov, Data.gov, and Challenge.gov would also be negatively impacted by these measures. While it's true that these platforms aren't perfect (as the Government Accountability Office has pointed out), they're fundamental to increased transparency and accountability in federal government.

USASpending.gov provides unprecedented visibility into federal spending. For example, a search shows that the Department of State last year spent nearly $22,000 on 840 bottles of Jack Daniels for "miscellaneous foreign contractors" in Russia. If Congress wants to save money, maybe it should start there. And Challenge.gov opens federal operations to the marketplace of ideas. Without funding, the sites might go dark before they have a chance to make a big difference.

"Underfunding an effort like this could really have the opposite effect of what we're looking for," said John Wonderlich, policy director of open government group the Sunlight Foundation. "Shedding light on government spending can save money and allows citizens to see how government money is being spent."

Cloud computing is another effort that would suffer if Congress doesn't reconsider e-government funding. Agencies calculate they stand to save $20 billion annually by moving to the cloud, but that requires leveraging the technology at government scale. The program for making that happen is FedRAMP, which aims to standardize and simplify today's inefficient security authorization processes.

FedRAMP promises to dramatically reduce the certification and authorization (C&A) costs associated with cloud products and services. "You can pay for the program many times over on savings alone," says one government contractor. Without funding, FedRAMP and other efforts to facilitate cloud updates, and the savings that go with it, could be scaled back, delayed, or forced to find other sources of funding.

Efforts to cut the federal deficit are absolutely necessary, but lawmakers must go about it the right way. The government's newest IT initiatives have the potential for returns that are multiples of what they cost. TechStat, data center consolidation, open government platforms, and cloud computing shouldn't be on the chopping block.


J. Nicholas Hoover is a senior editor for InformationWeek.

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