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GAO: Redundant Federal IT Systems Waste Money

The GAO identified four key areas for IT process improvement -- Department of Defense business systems, enterprise architecture, data centers, and e-health records -- and gave recommendations for how the government could eliminate overlap in these efforts.

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The federal government could save billions of tax dollars annually by addressing duplications in programs, agencies, offices, and initiatives that are adversely affecting the government's financial and operational effectiveness, according to a federal watchdog agency.

Some of the areas of overlap identified in a new 345-page report (PDF) from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) -- the first it's delivered after Congress directed it to report on this area -- are within single departments or agencies, while others span multiple organizations.

The agency identified 81 areas of duplication in hundreds of federal programs that are diverse in their scope and missions, ranging from agriculture to homeland security to social services to international affairs.

Not surprisingly, several key aspects of the government's implementation of IT were identified in the report as areas where overlap could be eliminated to help the government provide more efficient and effective services.

The GAO in particular identified four key areas for IT process improvement -- Department of Defense (DoD) business systems, enterprise architecture, data centers, and e-health records -- and gave recommendations for how the government could eliminate overlap in these efforts.

At the DoD, 2,300 investments in its business-system environment are fraught with overlap, including lack of standardization; multiple systems performing the same tasks; and instances where the same data is stored in multiple systems and in which the same data is entered manually into multiple systems.

Among the recommendations the GAO made to improve these areas include defining DoD business-system investments that can be implemented within the context of its federated business enterprise architecture, and a more evolved investment process that is institutionalized at all levels of the organization.

The GAO also recommended that the DoD manage its business system programs and projects with integrated institutional controls to ensure they consistently deliver benefits and capabilities on time and within budget.

While the DoD duplication problem is internal to the department, the GAO found that enterprise-architecture overlap is a cross-organizational problem, according to the report.

Maintaining legacy systems is a costly proposition for the federal government, and enterprise architectures are blueprints used by organizations for modernizing their IT environments. The GAO found that the architectures agencies are currently developing are "duplicative, poorly integrated, unnecessarily costly to maintain and interface, and unable to respond quickly to shifting environmental factors," according to the report.

Moreover, a 2006 GAO report found that agencies and departments were at different stages of enterprise architecture development and implementation, with most not "where they needed to be," according to the report.

To remedy this situation, agencies should use the GAO's enterprise architecture management maturity framework, which it recently issued as a guideline for enterprise-architecture creation, but which so far agencies have not leveraged to their fullest advantage, according to the GAO.

Duplication in data centers also is a cross-organizational duplication problem, one the government is already well aware of and currently trying to address by a broad, White House-mandated consolidation effort, according to the GAO.

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Government Innovators


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The number of federal data centers grew from 432 in 1998 to more than 2,000 in 2010, according to the Office of Management and Budget. The centers are rife with overlap -- including similar types of equipment, processing, and storage capabilities, a situation that's created multiple redundancies and unnecessary energy consumption, according to the report.

The GAO noted that the current data-center consolidation plan is on the right track to solving overlap, but observed that challenges -- such as funding from the government upfront for agencies to achieve consolidation plans and establishing and implementing shared standards for storage, security, and other systems -- exist as agencies continue to move ahead.

The agency recommended that the OMB and office of U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra continue their oversight of consolidation as agency plans take more shape and evolve to ensure they are eliminating identified redundancies.

Interoperability -- or lack thereof -- of electronic health record (EHR) practices between the DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs is another area of overlap cited in the report that agencies also are already working to address, although in not so broad a manner as the data-consolidation effort.

The GAO noted that although the two agencies share "many common health care business needs," they are working separately to modernize their EHR systems.

The DoD has begun an effort called the EHR (Electronic Health Record) Way Ahead to modernize its current AHLTA system, while the VA has begun a separate, open-source-based effort to modernize VistA, its decades-old EHR system.

The agency recommends that the two agencies work more closely together to align their modernization efforts and define and implement a process -- one that takes into consideration costs, benefits, schedule and risks -- for identifying joint IT investments that exist within each agency to meet the departments' common health care business needs. They also should further develop a joint health architecture as they implement their next-generation EHR systems, an effort that is already in motion.

VA CIO Roger Baker recently gave an update on the effort to a congressional committee, saying the two agencies are weeks away from agreeing on a common standard for electronic health records (EHRs), a move that should drastically improve how the agencies share patient data.

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