Monday, May 27, 2024

White House Embarks on $30B Federal IT Overhaul

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The Obama administration is putting 26 underperforming federal technology projects under an intense review as it continues its efforts to cut waste and improve efficiencies across the sprawling government IT apparatus.

The projects carry an estimated lifecycle cost of more than $30 billion, and are each described as “mission critical.” The administration is billing the effort as a rescue mission, saying that the projects are too important to simply cut, but that they have been implemented with such dysfunction that they demand the immediate attention of the agency CIOs as they prepare their budget requests for fiscal 2012.

“This isn’t about killing projects,” Federal CIO Vivek Kundra told reporters on a conference call Monday morning announcing the review. “It’s about making them work better and faster. It’s about getting more from taxpayer dollars.”

He added, “We believe that their objective remains as important as ever.”

The White House laid the groundwork for the review of high-risk IT projects with a pair of memos (PDFs available here and here) issued in June and July directing agency CIOs to begin reviewing their portfolios and identify the projects that had gone off the rails. Then from Aug. 2 to Aug. 18, Kundra and his team held meetings with the member agencies of the CIO Council to single out the projects that warranted immediate attention.

The result is today’s list of 26 projects from 15 agencies, posted on the federal IT spending dashboard here.

One of the projects headed for intense review is the Federal Retirement Program administered by the Office of Personnel Management. The program oversees the retirement benefits paid to federal workers and carries a lifecycle cost of $136 million, but OPM CIO Matthew Perry explained that it continues to rely too heavily on legacy systems.

“This is a highly paper-based project that we’re trying to modernize,” Perry said. “We want to get the information out of the black box.”

Kundra stressed the collaborative nature of the process of identifying underperforming IT projects, conducted under the stewardship of the Office of Management and Budget, but also canvassing Congress and the agencies for input. The effort also drew heavily on the data housed in the federal IT dashboard, the online repository that displays information about each agency’s technology programs, including the annual budgetary expense and the outside contractors that have been tapped for the projects.

The IT spending tracker, like other administration efforts to publish government information in a broad transparency push, has come under fire over the accuracy of the data.

Kundra today addressed that criticism by describing the dashboard as “an evolutionary process,” saying that the agencies are working to “re-engineer their backend processes to make sure their data on the IT dashboard is as accurate as possible.”

But in broad strokes, the initiative unveiled today aims to develop more rigorous oversight to government technology projects, many of which are outsourced to private contractors, in an effort to rein in failing projects and trim the fat from the $76 billion federal IT budget.

“We need to end a culture in Washington where we continue to throw good money after bad money,” Kundra said.

He also described the target programs announced today as a down payment on an ongoing effort to drive efficiency across the federal IT landscape. That push has seen Kundra and Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra spearhead a cloud-computing initiative that aims to whittle down duplicative or underused computing facilities in an effort to capitalize on the data-center efficiencies that have already gained firm traction in the private sector.

In the meantime, agency CIOs are under continuous direction to seek out imperiled IT programs and develop plans for bringing them back to budget and delivering the original objective.

“This is a small slice of the broader IT portfolio across the federal government. This does not mean that agency CIOs are not focused on those [other] projects,” Kundra said. “These 26 projects represent the highest priorities and where both OMB and agency CIOs believe we need to focus our attention.”

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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