OMB cautiously optimistic about agencies’ IT management

President Bush's point man on information technology Tuesday called 2003 "a year of opportunity" for improvements in the government's management of billions of dollars worth of information technology.

The federal government is "much further along" in its IT management practices than it was a year ago, said Mark Forman, the associate director of IT at the Office of Management and Budget. Forman's remarks came at a briefing for IT companies held at OMB headquarters in Washington.

However, Forman said the government needs to improve management in a number of areas, and announced that after 19 months on the job he has realized "there's an awful lot of redundancy in the way the government is structured, and sometimes that manifests itself in poor performance."

That poor performance manifests itself this fiscal year in more than $21 billion worth of IT projects the administration says have failed to live up to the president's management standards in areas such as project management, planning and information security.

Forman said those 750 or so projects would be not be continued unless they can correct their shortcomings by the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. To help put the projects in the clear, Forman said agency chief information officers are working with the Office of Personnel Management to enroll some federal employees in project management training courses. Several hundred projects are failing because of poor project management, he added.

Forman also said he would be stricter in requiring agencies to write business cases supporting the rationale for their IT investments. Currently, some projects don't require that support because they have no strategic importance to an agency's mission, he said. But Wednesday, OMB will release a list of such projects budgeted at more than $5 million, that will now be subject to the rule requiring that they submit business cases for the administration's approval.

Forman's presentation focused more on agencies' efforts to upgrade their antiquated and redundant information systems than on the administration's goals for electronic government. He said the administration continues to "make success" bringing services to citizens over the Web. But agencies will have a hard time improving their efforts without more funding. Last month, the Senate slashed the administration's fiscal 2003 budget request for an e-government fund from $45 million to $5 million, the same amount funded in fiscal 2002.

While well aware of agencies' propensity to spend more money on IT than budgeted, Forman said he "wouldn't assume" that agencies would spend many billions more this year than the president has requested. In fiscal 2002, the federal IT budget was $52 billion, but agencies spent about $58 billion. Forman said that OMB's guidance about how to stretch IT dollars is paying off, and that agencies should be able to stay within boundaries.

One area of heightened concern reflected in the fiscal 2004 budget is computer security. The president requested $4.7 billion for security, up from $4.2 billion the previous year and $2.7 billion in fiscal 2002. Forman said the administration wants 80 percent of all federal systems certified and accredited according to government standards by the end of this year.

Forman also addressed agency officials who, he said, have complained they can't make security improvements to their systems without additional funding. The onus of security lies not in funding, but in better management, he said, and added that as a matter of policy, the administration now wants agencies to secure their current systems before starting work on new ones.

Forman didn't discuss much of the effort under way at the Homeland Security Department to improve its IT systems and get them in better working order. Nearly two dozen agencies have to be electronically integrated many ways, from finding common e-mail systems to unifying dozens of terrorist suspect "watch lists" maintained by some security agencies.

It "continues to be a challenge to understand everything that we're doing in that arena," Forman said of the Homeland Security endeavor. He noted that while preparing the new budget the administration found agencies couldn't easily collaborate on key missions such as homeland security because of their problems with IT management.

This was the second budget briefing Forman has held in as many months. He unveiled the fiscal 2004 IT budget at a conference sponsored by Oracle Corp. in San Diego last month.

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