GAO: Agencies should expand TechStat reviews to all high-risk projects

Friday - 6/14/2013, 7:49pm EDT

Federal agencies need to step up their use of TechStat sessions, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a new report.

The face-to-face meetings of IT officials and agency leaders have been put to use by the Office of Management and Budget and individual agencies to turn around or terminate dozens of failing IT projects.

But only about a third of the agency projects deemed most at risk of cost overruns or schedule slips have undergone the reviews, GAO reported.

"Until OMB and agencies develop plans and schedules for addressing these at-risk investments, the investments will likely remain at risk," the report stated.

Just fraction of high-risk projects reviewed

The Office of Management and Budget initiated the first IT interventions in January 2010. Since then, OMB has led 79 TechStat sessions, GAO reported, focusing on 55 individual projects at 23 different agencies. Later, as part of OMB's 25-point IT reform plan, the administration directed agencies to start conducting their own TechStat sessions.

GAO examined TechStat sessions at the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Commerce and Homeland Security — agencies with the most number of "at-risk" IT investments — to determine how agencies are following OMB guidance.

As of April 2013, those four agencies have conducted 37 review sessions, covering 28 different IT projects, GAO reported.

However, compared to the actual number of at-risk IT investments held by the agencies, the number of reviews is actually quite modest, according to GAO. And there remain many high-risk, multimillion dollar projects that agencies have failed to review at all.

For example, as of May 2013, the online IT Dashboard listed 28 projects rated by agency CIOs as being high- or moderate-risk, but nearly half of them — totaling $172 million — had not undergone a TechStat review.

Agencies looked at an average of just 33 percent of their individual high-risk projects, GAO said.

GAO called for greater coordination between OMB and the agencies.

"Until OMB and agencies intervene to turn around these at-risk projects, the government will continue to spend limited IT investment dollars on underperforming projects."

Dispute over cost-savings

The good news is that GAO found agencies have generally been following OMB guidance for holding their review sessions. However, auditors said agencies need to do more to fully document the process and track the outcome of the sessions — whether a review resulted in accelerated delivery of a system, for example, or termination.

The lack of documentation made it difficult for GAO to validate reported cost-savings stemming from the TechStat reviews, which OMB has pegged at $3 billion.

"Without documentation or an explanation of its method in validating agencies' reported results and cost savings, it will be difficult for OMB to provide a sufficient level of confidence to Congress and the public that the information it has presented is credible," the report stated.

GAO also recommended that OMB require agencies to expand the use of TechStat sessions to include all IT investments rated either moderate- or high-risk.

OMB's Office of E-Government and Information Technology generally concurred with GAO's findings, according to the report. However OMB said it is confident in agencies' reported TechStat cost-savings and GAO's conclusion that those were not valid was only "speculative." GAO rebutted those charges.

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