Government Culture Blamed For Slow Federal IT Reform

U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra and other federal IT leaders said duplicative systems and poor program management persist as feds work on 25-point reform plan.
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While the federal government has made some progress to achieve IT spending reform according to a 25-point plan the Obama administration unveiled in December, a historical and persistent government IT culture has hampered the feds and is hindering progress, a trio officials told a U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Tuesday.

U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra, David McClure, the General Services Administration's (GSA's) Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies associate administrator, and David Powner, the Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) director of information technology management issues, testified before the committee about progress being made on the plan.

Poor program management and duplicative systems--problems that have plagued federal IT operations for years--are still two areas in the federal government needs to work on as it moves toward cutting out wasteful IT spending, they said.

The trio also faced some tough questions about why the government has historically mismanaged its IT investments and how the cost savings agencies have realized of late due to cloud computing initiatives and other IT improvements justify the money lost over the years.

Kundra said the feds have saved $3 billion in the last 26 months so far by eliminating wasteful spending, consolidating infrastructure, and investing in new technologies such as cloud computing.

However, he also acknowledged that it's tough to gauge how much money has been lost by killing IT projects that were running way over budget and not going anywhere, one of which--a Department of Defense (DOD) human-resources project--cost billions of dollars over 12 years.

Kundra said that four such projects were eliminated as part of the IT reform plan that has looked at 50 projects. But rather than kill projects, he said agencies have had far more success in "rescoping" projects according to a strategy that forces agencies to examine projects every six months to make sure tangible value can be measured.

"One of the problems we've seen is that people are looking at these projects as IT projects, but at the end of day, they're about transforming how the agency operates," he said.

This model will be reproduced across 300 more IT investments in the coming months that have been flagged by the OMB for review because of poor performance, Kundra said.

He added that all federal agencies have identified three systems that "must move" to the cloud, another one the goals of the IT reform plan's "cloud first" technology policy.

"There are 75 systems that have been identified and will move to the cloud," Kundra said, adding that agencies currently are examining the security requirements for that move.

Duplicative IT systems also are a problem the government must continue to address as it moves ahead with reform, officials said. The administration is already on track to eliminated 800 of more than 2,000 data centers by 2015, Kundra said, an effort the government has been working on for some time.

But data centers aren't the only problem, Powner testified. He said the federal government has asked for $2.5 billion in fiscal 2011 to fund 600 separate human-resources systems, and $3 billion to fund more than 500 financial-management systems.

"Does the fed government need 500 financial management systems?" he asked. "Not only do we need to improve the performance of what we're spending money on, but there's duplication in what we're looking at."

IT program management is another historical problem the government is trying to resolve through the 25-point plan, but which still needs significant attention.

Kundra compared the problem to the medical profession, noting that if a surgeon doesn't go through medical school, a residency, working with attending physicians and the like, he or she doesn't get to operate on a patient alone.

However, in the federal government, many IT program managers historically have been completely inexperienced for their jobs, he said. If the administration were to address this problem and put qualified, trained people in charge of IT projects, it would go a long way to eliminating careless IT spending and leveraging technology in the most cost-effective and advantageous way.

"No matter how effective our programs and technologies are, the success rests on effective program managers," Kunda said. "Too often these programs are managed by individuals . . . who lack training."