More oversight needed to achieve billions of dollars in IT savings

Tuesday - 11/12/2013, 4:50pm EST

David Powner, director of information technology management issues, GAO

Download mp3

The government spends around $80 billion a year on information technology. The administration has been concentrating on two initiatives to help get it under control. One is reducing spending on operations and maintenance so there's more money for innovation. The other is PortfolioStat, under which agencies try to identify and root out duplicate spending.

Two recent investigations from the Government Accountability Office on IT say these efforts aren't doing enough.

David Powner, GAO's director of IT and management issues, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Tuesday that agencies are supposed to conduct annual reviews of investments in operations and maintenance.

"This review is very important, because what it does is it ensures that the investment is still meeting mission needs, that it's the most efficient way of doing it," he said.

This way, agencies can determine, for instance, whether it was better to go to the cloud rather than coming up with a homegrown solution or whether new IT investments duplicate existing ones.

GAO looked at the top 10 O&M investments in the federal government, which account for approximately $8 billion in spending or 10 percent of the federal IT budget. Of those 10 investments, only one — a Customs and Border Protection infrastructure project at the Homeland Security Department — had the annual review conducted.

"That's really not good because we're in a situation where we have $8 billion in these 10 investments and nine of them aren't getting the critical look that they deserve," Powner said.

GAO's Portfoliostat review identified 200 duplicative initiatives across the federal government that could be the source of an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion in savings.

"This is real money and there's a lot of duplication," Powner said. "There's better ways of doing things and we really need to scrutinize the steady-state investments."

The call to end duplicative programs is not a new one. The Obama administration released its 25-point IT reform policy in 2010 and launched the PortfolioStat initiative last year to help agency chief information officers get a more complete picture of where their money is going and what opportunities are out there to consolidate buying.

Although Powner called these "great initiatives," GAO's reports have found that they lack sufficient accountability.

"We find in many of these reports — and these two current reports are falling into the same boat here — they're well-intentioned initiatives, they're poorly executed and really there's not enough accountability," he said. "The PortfolioStat Initiative — we now have 200 initiatives. We know what agencies those initiatives are at. We know what the associated dollars are and that really needs to be driven home so that we get the savings between $6 billion and $8 billion."

The problem as Powner sees it is that the government develops great plans which start out well but lack sufficient follow through.

"I think what we're faced with and with many of these initiatives is that there needs to be clear accountability," he said. "There needs to be clear leadership coming out of [the Office of Management and Budget]. Also leadership out of the various departments and agencies. This is right in the wheelhouse of chief information officers and what they should be doing and be focused on. I think that those are the individuals, ultimately when we look at leadership, that's where it needs to start."

Despite these concerns about the lack of accountability and follow through, Powner said PortfolioStat does offer real opportunities for real savings through identifying and consolidating duplicative initiatives.

"I believe those savings are through 2015, so it's right around the corner," he said. "It's not like these are way out in the future, the $8 billion in plan savings. That's something that the Congress is already asking us to follow up with in future, this next year to make sure that those 200 opportunities get a close look."

OMB did not see eye-to-eye with GAO on every portion of the PortfolioStat report, agreeing to about half of the report's recommendations.

"But some of this we would like to see a little more transparency on the opportunities that are out there and also the expected savings," Powner said. "Because, I think, OMB initially was saying there was about 100 opportunities and a $2.5 billion pricetag on those 100 opportunities. And we actually found double that — 200 opportunities and up to $8 billion in savings. So, we would like to see even greater transparency coming out of OMB on what these opportunities are so that we in fact can get the associated savings."