A look at GAO IT audits for ’13

2012_09_davidpowner Photo: FedScoop/David Stegon

Occasionally, the Government Accountability Office’s reports “slap some wrists and beat up on nonperforming agencies ,” but the true reward comes from helping federal agencies create institutional change that can get the most from its allocated resources, said GAO’s Dave Powner in an interview with FedScoop.

Powner, one of three IT directors within GAO, said the agency is currently mapping out its reports for the coming year, negotiating with congressional leaders as to what subjects best merit the agency’s manpower in the coming year. The goal is to hit on the biggest and most costly programs that can provide the most savings for the federal government.


Key topics to be tackled this year, he said: The Office of Management and Budget’s Information Technology Dashboard, the federal data center consolidation initiative, PortfolioStat and TechStat and the allocation of operations and maintenance for information technology budgets.

Powner handles government-wide technology along with information systems at the Department of Homeland Security, the Internal Revenue Services and NOAA. Greg Wilshusen handles all information security work while Valerie Melvin tackles defense and health IT Issues.

The three head up a 160-person organization under their managing director, Joel Willemssen, within the 3,000-person GAO. Their primary responsibility is to point out the good, the bad and the ugly of federal technology while providing constructive criticism to help agencies dealing with the highest risk technology investments.

The reports themselves look to be done in six- to 9-month windows to stay relevant with changing technology trends. While a large part deal with finding ways for agencies to improve, there are also others that deal with best practices. For instance, earlier this year Powner’s office released 32 agile development best practices as well as a separate report on successful cloud projects.

Powner highlighted a number of coming projects in his interview with FedScoop:

  • Called U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel’s portfolio project is a great initiative, but one he would like to see go beyond just commodity IT. He’d like to see it expand to things like – to use DHS for an example – law enforcement programs and data mining systems. “So much of what we do in federal IT is in stovepipes and what we need to do more is leverage existing contracts more – sometimes within an agency,” he said.
  • OMB said it wants to get to $3 billion in savings on federal data centers, but that number could end up being much higher once all the accounting is done. “There is a huge opportunity there,” Power said.
  • As for data centers, Powner said GAO will look at the governance structure behind them, as there are a lot of moving parts in the projects such as OMB’s role, GSA, the agencies themselves and the federal CIO council. “We want to make sure all the lines of communication are clear and that the savings are being maximized.
  • The federal IT dashboard will get  a good look. Powner said that there are a number of federal agencies that are likely under-reporting the number of high-risk technology investments it has. Powner said a number of federal agencies have “all green and yellow” projects, meaning none are high-risk.
  • The dashboard also only keeps track of major IT investments, roughly $40 billion in spending and about half the federal IT budget. The other half are non-majors and Powner would like there to be more transparency on the full spend.
  • Another big area to look is operations and maintenance. Powner said about $55 billion of the $80 billion federal IT spend goes toward steady stay systems while $25 billion goes to new development. He said there is great opportunity to reduce the $55 billion number. “We want to look at  what is the ideal number for O&M and see what needs to be done in order to get it to that point,” he said.

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