GAO: Billions Wasted on Federal IT Projects

More than 400 U.S. government agency IT projects-worth an estimated $25 billion-are suffering from poor planning and are underperforming, the GAO says in a report. Sen. Tom Carper claims even projects that are performing well are repeatedly rebaselining to cover cost overruns.

WASHINGTON-Government agencies are spending billions of dollars on IT investments that are redundant, lack clear goals and are managed by unqualified individuals, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said July 31.

Some of the projects have been delayed for more than a decade and are costing billions more than originally budgeted.

Citing a new GAO (Government Accountability Office) study (PDF) that found more than 400 federal IT projects worth approximately $25 billion are suffering from poor planning or are underperforming, Carper said it might time for Congress to pull the plug on some of the projects.

Unfortunately, Carper noted, Congress is hamstrung in that effort by a lack of hard information from the agencies.

"Congress still does not have the information necessary from OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] to hold agencies accountable and choose where we want to invest scarce resources [every] year," Carper said at a hearing that drew only a handful of bureaucrats and even fewer senators.

Since 1994 Congress has required federal agencies to keep costs, delivery dates and performance goals of major IT acquisitions within 90 percent of the originally proposed plan. The OMB is mandated to provide Congress with a yearly report on the progress of the agencies. The OMB has produced three reports in 14 years.

"With risky investments-such as IT-it is important to increase collaboration and visibility, not hinder it," Carper said. "So far, this hasn't been the case."

More troubling, Carper said, is that some agencies are "rebaselining" to cover cost overruns or keep schedule delays from Congress. According to the GAO study released July 31, almost 50 percent of all federal IT investments are rebaselined. The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Veteran Affairs have rebaselined more than five times on a single investment.

"Although agencies are responsible for the excessive rebaselining, there is one thing in common between all these investments. Every baseline and rebaseline was approved by the OMB," Carper said. "Someone, somewhere-in my view-is not fulfilling their responsibility to ensure that taxpayer money dollars are spent only on those investments that are well thought out and truly necessary."

Frustrated by the lack of real data, Carper and his subcommittee have resorted to giving out report cards to federal agencies on their planning and implementation of IT projects. Half of the 28 federal agencies graded by the subcommittee received an "F."

Among the agencies receiving a failing grade from Carper's subcommittee are the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services, which are currently managing more than $5 billion in IT projects.

Carper, though, questioned even those agencies like HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) that received an "A+."

"HUD received this A+ partly because they reported that every project was delivered on-cost, on-schedule and performing as planned," Carper said. "However ... HUD rebaselined at least one project seven times, possibly to mask spiraling costs."

Carper said some agencies often provide the OMB with inaccurate or incomplete data. "So we don't have a complete picture, even for those agencies that are allegedly doing a better job than others," Carper said.

Carper, along with Senators Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, plans to introduce legislation this week designed to give Congress and the OMB more accurate information on the management of IT projects. The Technology Investment and Waste Prevention Act of 2008 would require agencies to report regularly on significant deviations in cost, schedule and performance.

"Recognizing that agencies may not have the skills necessary to manage complex investments and may trouble recruiting qualified managers, our bill would set up a team of experts from inside or outside of government that agencies may use as a resource," Carper said.