Federal government efforts to identify and track federal information technology investments remain insufficient to curtail duplicative spending, according to the latest in a series of a reports released by the Government Accountability Office critical of government IT spending practices.

The GAO report, released Oct. 27, took primary aim at the the White House Office of Management and Budget, and the way it categorizes and tracks IT investments, citing a number of principle shortcomings, although those familiar with OMB’s operating levers note the problem goes beyond OMB.

Among GAO’s findings:

OMB’s IT Dashboard lists 26 federal agencies and their plans to spend a total of about $79 billion on 7,248 IT investments in fiscal year 2011. That spending figure is often used in referring to what the government spends on IT annually. However, GAO said the $79 billion does not include IT investments by 58 independent executive branch agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, or by the legislative or judicial branches.

And because agencies choose to exclude certain systems or categories of systems when they report to OMB on their IT investments, key costs are also not included in OMB’s estimate of annual spending on federal IT investments.

For example, the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration did not include $676 million in IT-related development costs related to two satellite projects, budgeting the spending in a non-IT category. GAO said five of the 10 agencies GAO reviewed consider investments in research and development systems as IT, while five do not.

There are hundreds of investments providing similar functions across the federal government (including) 1,536 information and technology management investments, 781 supply chain management investments, and 661 human resource management investments.”

GAO also found that OMB directs agencies to categorize their IT investments into single functional categories. However, many IT investments can fit into more than one category. As a result, similar projects are often categorized inconsistently, making it harder to spot duplicative investments.

A closer look at the $79 billion in investments for the 26 agencies also reveals that about two-thirds of the expenditures are for maintaining and operating existing systems, while about one-third of the expenditures provide for the development of new systems, which makes it harder to fully identify and phase out redundant systems.

The GAO report found “there are hundreds of investments providing similar functions across the federal government. For example, agencies reported 1,536 information and technology management investments, 781 supply chain management investments, and 661 human resource management investments.”

“Until OMB clarifies and enforces its requirement that agencies should be reporting on all IT investments, selected IT investments will not be subjected to the enhanced oversight, and OMB’s estimates of federal IT investments will be significantly understated,” GAO concluded.

GAO recommended that “OMB clarify its reporting on IT investments and improve its guidance to agencies on identifying and categorizing IT investments.”

OMB responded to the findings, the report said, disagreeing that further efforts were needed to clarify reporting.

Mark Forman the first OMB Office of E-Government and IT administrator, during the George W. Bush Administration and co-founder, Government Transaction Services, observed the fact that “nearly half of the spending is being spent just to manage the complex federal IT environment” points to key problem that “haunts the current administration’s cost-savings strategy,” he said.

“It is not lack of data, but cost of complexity and no governance structure to reduce the complexity,” he said. “That’s a big problem.”

“The real problem of consolidating redundancy has not been addressed by OMB, and cannot be addressed without the Congressional appropriators changing their behavior that facilitates redundancy,” he said.

Former Department of Transportation CIO, Dan Mintz concurred that GAO’s findings don’t tell the overall story.

“Oversight reports like the one put out by GAO, while well-meaning and often accurate in their assessments, and OMB efforts, while they have over the last decade made and continue to cause significant improvements in how the Federal Government makes IT investments, both have a forest and trees problem: They tend to focus on the tallest and most visible aspect of the problem while not necessarily dealing with the surrounding forest, that is the systemic causes, said Mintz, now chief operating officer of Powertek Corp

Mintz recommend as a complement to the GAO-OMB discussion that consideration be given to two ideas:

  • Consider creating a civilian agency version of the Defense Information Systems Agency, which will enhance the focus of ‘cloud first’ to ‘consolidated IT provisioning first.’
  • Focus on data standardization initiatives, such as NIEM, and business process standardization which are likely to be ‘sticky’, and thus have more lasting impact on how the Government operates and interfaces internally and with external stakeholders such as state and local governments as well as citizens in general.