Obama sends 30 tech projects back to the drawing board

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra says goal is to be “better and faster.” Federal CIO Vivek Kundra says goal is to be “better and faster.” Carrie Devorah/Newscom
The Obama administration on Monday announced that about 30 mission-critical information technology projects, collectively worth $30 billion, will be reworked and possibly cut.

The list of high-risk projects, ranging in cost from $64 million to $7.6 billion, is the result of a two-week review of underperforming systems at every federal agency.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra said the decisions were based on data from a variety of sources, including reports from inspectors general and auditors, meetings with agency CIOs, and the IT Dashboard -- a relatively new website intended to track the progress of systems under development. The Government Accountability Office recently reported the dashboard contains some inaccurate data, but Kundra, in a call with reporters, said the site's statistics did not solely drive judgments.

Among the more costly projects identified as behind schedule and over-budget are the Treasury Department's $2.8 billion IT infrastructure telecommunications systems and support, the FBI's $3.4 billion next-generation identification system and the Interior Department's $7.6 billion effort to consolidate its IT infrastructure agencywide. The Office of Personnel Management has essentially suspended and scaled back spending on a flagged project to modernize its largely paper-based retiree payment system, Kundra said.

While the goal of the heightened oversight is not to peg projects for termination, Kundra said the White House would scrap programs that do not improve.

"This isn't killing projects," he said. "It's about making them work better and faster." He added, however, that "we have to end the culture in Washington where we continue to throw good money after bad money. . . . If we're not creating value, absolutely," projects will be cut in the next budget.

Agencies are in the process of compiling spending proposals for the fiscal 2012 budget that will be released in February 2011. Department CIOs will submit improvement plans for each high-risk project and then meet with OMB officials to evaluate whether funding should be altered.

The watch list is part of a far-reaching White House initiative to fundamentally change the way the federal government manages roughly $79 billion in annual IT spending. The Office of Management and Budget has suspended about 30 financial system projects to pare them down and is in the process of rewriting rules for all IT acquisitions.

OMB officials said separately on Monday that they expect to deliver verdicts on the financial systems by the end of September.

Justice Department CIO Vance Hitch, who also was on the call, said the department has halted the last two phases of Sentinel, a project to modernize FBI case management. The first two stages experienced costly delays, so Justice stopped development to possibly divide the program into smaller elements, he said.

IT contractors have said they are eager to work with the White House on reforming IT project management, but oppose arbitrary freezes. TechAmerica, an industry group, said its members want more insight into the decisions announced on Monday.

"Our companies also need more information about how and why these projects were selected -- they can only help correct problems they understand," TechAmerica President Phil Bond said in a statement. "There certainly are concerns in many quarters about what data went into the development of this list, how that data was analyzed and how it was presented."

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