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House lawmakers are under pressure to approve IT oversight bill

A bill that would overhaul information technology oversight sailed through the Senate but, with time running out before Congress adjourns in October, the House still is assessing whether the measure might impede ongoing projects.

The IT Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act (S. 920) would make permanent many Obama administration technology reforms. It would establish a website for tracking the results of IT investments, similar to the IT Dashboard that federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra launched last year. It also would require agency CIOs to submit quarterly reports on IT systems' costs, schedule and performance against planned benchmarks.

But the bill would go further than current practices by granting the Office of Management and Budget permission to hire outside consultants for solving problems. Advisers, for instance, could include retail executives who are experts at supply chain management. Agency heads or OMB officials would be authorized to stop or slash funding for projects beyond repair.

The history of federal IT is rife with stories of projects that missed deadlines, cost more than anticipated and underperformed. The Obama administration is clamping down on project management by experimenting with techniques such as online monitoring, suspending faltering projects to remap or yank them, and meeting in-person with agency CIOs to preempt problems.

Sens. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced the oversight bill in April 2009 to address these issues, and the Senate passed it in May 2010 with bipartisan support. The measure now awaits action in the House, but Democrats and Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are reviewing the language separately, to determine whether it has enough backing. The full House likely would have only enough time to consider the bill under suspension of the rules, a procedure for expediting action that bars amendments and requires a two-thirds majority of votes for passage, congressional aides said.

A staffer for Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., said the committee supports the bill's broader goals of reducing waste and decreasing federal IT acquisition costs, but also wants to ensure legislative efforts do not stunt the growth of technology initiatives.

Some industry groups argue halting projects could result in the loss of skilled contract and federal employees, who might have moved on to other initiatives by the time work resumes. They also claim contractors will raise their prices for IT projects to hedge against the risk that an effort might be put on hold.

Michael Krigsman, an IT consultant who blogs about project failures, wrote last year that the bill was "well-intentioned" but contained weaknesses that might "create even more bureaucratic waste."

He supported the bill at the time, but said it should be more proactive and include requirements to ensure business cases for projects are sound. Instead, Krigsman wrote, the measure describes remedial actions that must be taken when a project already has deviated from its original cost, schedule or performance goals.

In addition, the bill does not stipulate that the online dashboard include simple language to make the mandated data elements, such as "earned value management," meaningful to a general audience. Earned value management is a technique used to gauge the progress of a project by mapping the actual amount of work completed to planned milestones.

A GOP Oversight and Government Reform committee aide said staffers are checking on whether any House Republicans have concerns similar to Krigsman's.

Democrats have yet to contact Republican members of the committee about moving the bill, according to a spokesman for ranking member Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "As this bill will almost certainly have to pass on the suspension calendar, Rep. Issa and committee Republicans are working to ensure the bill will enjoy broad support in the House," said Frederick Hill, the spokesman.

The House's conservative caucus declined to comment on the legislation.

On Thursday, Carper, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, said with the nation facing record deficits, now is the time to enact a bill that stops squandering funds on flawed projects.

"Information technology is critical to ensuring that our government runs well in an increasingly digital age, but it's clear that federal agencies have been dropping the ball when it comes to deploying the right technology in a timely and cost-effective manner," he said. "The Obama administration has taken some important first steps to crack down on projects that we don't need or are failing to deliver on expectations. This legislation will enhance the administration's current efforts by providing the planning and oversight needed to reduce waste."

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