Federal IT projects need critical care

Watchdogs at GAO put government IT project on High Risk List.

Federal IT projects have hit the critical care list all too often and now watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office have moved those undertakings to its High Risk List which means Congress and the executive branch should take an extra special look at the situation.

The GAO puts out the High Risk List every two years at the start of a new Congress, with the notion that resolution to those problems in particular could save billions in taxpayer money. The list currently includes 32 items ranging from climate change and cyber security threat response to Medicaid fraud.

+ More on Network World: FBI: The top 3 ways Congress could help fight tenacious cyber threats +

This year the area of "Improving the Management of Information Technology (IT) Acquisitions and Operations" for the first time was included on the list.

From the GAO: "Congress has passed legislation and the administration has undertaken numerous initiatives to better manage IT investments. Nonetheless, federal IT investments too frequently fail to be completed or incur cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes.

GAO has found that the federal government spent billions of dollars on failed and poorly performing IT investments which often suffered from ineffective management, such as project planning, requirements definition, and program oversight and governance. Over the past five years, GAO made more than 730 recommendations; however, only about 23% had been fully implemented as of January 2015."

Considering such a track record it is probably no surprise that so many agencies continue to have poorly performing projects.

"Such projects have often used a 'big bang' approach--that is, projects are broadly scoped and aim to deliver functionality several years after initiation. According to the Defense Science Board, this approach is often too long, ineffective, and unaccommodating of the rapid evolution of IT."

The GAO said that it has detailed a number of failed IT investments over the years including:

  • the Department of Defense's (DOD) Expeditionary Combat Support System, which was canceled in December 2012, after spending more than $1 billion and failing to deploy within five years of initially obligating funds;
  • the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative Network program, which was ended in January 2011, after obligating more than $1 billion to the program, because it did not meet cost-effectiveness and viability standards;
  • the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise program, which was intended to be delivered by 2014 at a total estimated cost of $609 million, but was terminated in October 2011 due to challenges in managing the program;
  • the Office of Personnel Management's Retirement Systems Modernization program, which was canceled in February 2011, after spending approximately $231 million on the agency's third attempt to automate the processing of federal employee retirement claims;
  • the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, which was a tri-agency weather satellite program that was terminated in February 2010 after having spent 16 years and almost $5 billion on the program, when a presidential task force decided to disband the system; and
  • the VA Scheduling Replacement Project, which was terminated in September 2009 after spending an estimated $127 million over nine years.

"These and other failed IT projects often suffered from a lack of disciplined and effective management, such as project planning, requirements definition, and program oversight and governance. In many instances, agencies have not consistently applied best practices that are critical to successfully acquiring IT investments," the GAO stated.

There are ongoing projects that need some attention as well. The much-publicized failures of the Healthcare.gov system and the DOD and VA electronic health records initiative to name a couple.

In addition to spending money on new IT development, agencies also plan to spend a significant amount of their fiscal year 2015 IT budgets on the operations and maintenance of legacy systems. Specifically, in fiscal year 2015, of the overall $79 billion budgeted for federal IT, 27 federal agencies plan to spend about $58 billion, or almost three- quarters of the total budgeted, on the operation and maintenance of these legacy investments.

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