Administration touts progress in managing tech investments

Federal agencies are planning and managing their information technology investments more effectively, the Office of Management and Budget reported Monday.

"Agencies continue to make progress in establishing effective management practices supporting their IT portfolio," said Karen Evans, OMB's e-government and IT administrator. "Today's report indicates agencies are increasing their own oversight and focus on achieving results for the taxpayers."

OMB cited a decrease over the past seven months in the number of projects on its Management Watch List, which flags investment plans submitted under the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act that have one or more weaknesses. Projects on the list are targeted for follow-up action to correct planning deficiencies prior to execution.

As of Sept. 30, there were 134 business cases on the Management Watch List, a 61 percent decrease from the 346 cases listed in February. The value of the projects hasn't dropped as substantially. The remaining 134 cases represent a minimum of $8.4 billion in projected IT investments for fiscal 2008, a decrease of $1.3 billion or 13 percent from the $9.7 billion in April.

The number of projects on a separate High Risk List intended to highlight efforts that require attention from top agency managers has increased, growing by 10 percent since February, OMB reported. There are 603 projects on the list, representing at least $15.5 billion in spending for fiscal 2008.

A spot on the High Risk List does not necessarily indicate a project is in danger of failure. In fact, the list's growth is "attributable to increased management oversight reported by agencies," OMB stated. "In other words, we have increasingly better information about the projects."

Observers outside government had a mixed reaction to OMB's announcement.

"I agree that much progress has been made and that OMB gets much of the credit for establishing a rigorous IT governance and oversight structure," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer of FedSources, a McLean, Va.-based research and consulting firm. "However, those of us outside the government do not have perfect knowledge of why a program is on the Watch or High Risk lists."

Bjorklund said all OMB criteria for managing investments are important. But finishing programs on time and within budget, and meeting or exceeding requirements, are the best indications of success in oversight of technology investments, he said.

J. Davidson Frame, dean of the University of Management and Technology in Arlington, Va., noted that the administration has been quick to report progress.

"Quality management theory and practice suggests that the most enduring gains in processes arise from continuous improvement over time," Frame said. "Problems in operational performance are usually rooted in a complex of factors. . . . When I see miracle improvements occur very quickly, I wonder whether the improvements are genuine or reflect statistical artifacts."

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