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IT to get more attention in approval process for political appointees

When the Senate holds hearings next year to confirm what will then be President Barack Obama's choices to lead federal agencies, nominees could face a long list of questions on how they plan to use information technology to improve and secure government operations.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The Government Accountability Office released a report on Monday outlining management problems at the largest federal agencies, including shortcomings in acquisition, an inability to collaborate, poor financial practices, shortages of skilled employees, and failure to develop IT projects that perform as planned and improve public services.

The report, which is an update to one released in 2000 before the Bush administration took over, identifies the major issues 28 agencies face for senators in charge of confirming political appointees in an Obama administration. GAO suggested questions the senators can ask nominees to determine whether they have the skills to solve those problems.

"Building and developing the institutional capacity to meet these challenges will require appointing the right people to the right positions," GAO wrote in the cover letter to the report. "It is vitally important that leadership and management skills, abilities and experience be among the key criteria the new president uses to select his leadership teams in the agencies."

The letter was addressed to Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, ranking member on the subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.

In a show of how IT has become more central to government operations, the number of questions GAO suggested senators ask when interviewing nominees increased from only three in the 2000 report to 26 questions in the 2008 report. New topics include how a nominee would strengthen IT project management, use IT to improve health care, tighten cybersecurity and protect privacy, and use IT to give the public access to government documents. Some examples of the questions include:

• Ensuring that system programs and projects are effectively planned and managed can be challenging. Describe the experience you have had that will help you to ensure that key capabilities and controls are implemented to increase project success.

• What qualifications and experiences do you bring relative to leveraging enterprise architecture to facilitate organizational transformation?

• How does your experience prepare you for overseeing privacy practices and ensuring that they are adequate?

• What do you see as the greatest information security challenges facing your agency? What experience or knowledge of information security do you have that you could use to help address your agency's challenges?

The watchdog agency listed specific IT management problems, including the Agriculture Department's modernization system. GAO recommended asking a political nominee for a position with Agriculture, "Have you ever taken an organization through information systems modernization? How close were the cost and completion estimates to the actual numbers when all systems were operational?"

The report also cited the Census Bureau's troubled handheld computer contract to support the 2010 decennial census. GAO suggested that senators ask nominees at the Commerce Department, "What experience, if any, do you have that prepares you to deal with such technical management concerns?"

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