OMB publishes high-risk list for IT despite misgivings

The Office of Management and Budget on Thursday published a list of high-risk information technology projects that it previously has resisted sharing for fear that would undermine the document's purpose.

Karen Evans, OMB's administrator of e-government and technology, said at a luncheon Thursday that it is important for people to understand the difference between the high-risk list, which contains a set of high-priority IT projects, and the management watch list, which is a compilation of IT investments that don't meet a series of standards.

"If you're on the high-risk list, it doesn't mean that the project is at risk as in … the agency is failing," Evans said. "It means that there are things that are happening within that particular project … and you need to make sure that senior leadership is aware of it."

Also, the high-risk list, established in August 2005, relates to the execution of specific projects. The management watch list, in contrast, is meant to help oversee the planning of IT investments going through the budget process and was established under the authority of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act.

Agency officials can make suggestions for projects that need to be on the high-risk list, but OMB ultimately sets the final list. Evans said the 25 e-government projects and the lines of business initiative to make IT systems more efficient are on the high-risk list because of their complex nature and ripple effect across the government.

"[They] have a lot of risk associated with them, and it takes management at the highest level to ensure their success," Evans said. "I don't want the focus to be, 'I'm on the list. I need to be off the list.' It's not a bad thing to be on the high-risk list."

Evans said earlier this month that if a list of the high-risk projects is published, agencies could edge away from providing "good quality information" in an attempt to avoid being on the list.

The published list will not include justifications explaining why the projects are on it. But Evans said the reasons are fairly obvious, and in some cases, publicly available elsewhere.

The Government Accountability Office called for the publication of the list in a July report, stating that OMB lacked consistent criteria for placing projects on it. The document contains 226 IT projects totaling about $6.4 billion, or 10 percent of the government's proposed $64 billion IT budget for fiscal 2007.

A more structured process for adding and removing projects and a single aggregated list of the high-risk projects is needed to keep Congress up to date on progress, the GAO report stated.

Evans said at the time that an aggregate list is not necessary because the list's intent is for agencies to focus on the execution and performance of the projects. Adopting a consistent process for updating the list limits agencies' flexibility, she said.

At a Sept. 7 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security hearing, Evans backed off her previous position on publishing the list, and said her office would compile it for the subcommittee's chairman, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

A spokesman for Coburn said the subcommittee received the information Thursday and that the senator is pleased OMB is putting the list online.

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