Federal IT acquisitions earns spot on GAO high-risk list

As information technology investments in the federal government continue to fail at an abysmal rate, OMB this week added IT acquisitions to a list of high-risk federal programs.

As information technology investments in the federal continue to fail at an abysmal rate, congressional watchdogs this week added IT acquisitions to a list of high-risk federal programs.

Released with each new Congress, the Government Accountability Offices’ biennial High Risk List, which lawmakers use to set their oversight agendas, puts IT acquisitions as one of 32 areas in government with “greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” Department of Veterans Affairs health care was also added to the 2015 list.

“Congress has passed legislation and the administration has undertaken numerous initiatives to better manage IT investments,” the GAO report says. “Nonetheless, federal IT investments too frequently fail to be completed or incur cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes. GAO has found that the federal government spent billions of dollars on failed and poorly performing IT investments which often suffered from ineffective management, such as project planning, requirements definition, and program oversight and governance.”

In the past five years, the GAO said it’s made more than 700 IT acquisition-related recommendations, but only 23 percent have been fully executed.


The report lists several failed IT projects that wasted billions of taxpayer dollars, such as the Defense Department’s Expeditionary Combat Support System, the Department of Homeland Security’s Secure Border Initiative Network program, VA’s Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise program, and the Office of Personnel Management’s Retirement Systems Modernization program. Additionally, it highlights other IT investments that are limping along and need attention, like, the Transportation Department’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), and the DOD and VA electronic health records initiative.

Beyond individual projects, GAO also called on the Office of Management and Budget to improve its broad IT management tools, such as the IT Dashboard and PortfolioStat, and make sure agencies are effectively using them.

Chris Mihm, managing director of GAO’s Strategic Issues team, said in a podcast that the issue isn’t technology-based but rather poor management.

“Unfortunately, fairly consistently, we find problems with these projects,” Mihm said. “And these seem to center on a lack of discipline and effective management practices, the need for improvements in project planning, and poor program oversight in governance.”

He pointed to the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act as a valuable tool for agency chief information officers to take better care of their IT investments.


Agencies “need to implement some statutory tools that Congress gave them in December of 2014 that will give the CIOs, chief information officers, greater transparency and authority over investments in each of the agencies,” Mihm said. “This is a real high-risk effort both because of the importance of IT and obviously the size of the investment.”

The report on IT closes with a bleak outlook. “Given the federal government’s continued experience with failed and troubled IT projects, coupled with the fact that OMB initiatives to help address such problems have not been fully implemented, the government will likely continue to produce disappointing results and will miss opportunities to improve IT management, reduce costs, and improve services to the public, unless needed actions are taken,” it says.

In the larger list for 2015, GAO also expanded its focus on cyber threats, a high-risk item since 1997.

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