Agencies make another dent in high-risk IT investments

To encourage further progress, OMB releases online financial analysis tool.

The Office of Management and Budget on Thursday reported continued progress reducing the number of federal information technology investments deemed high risk due to complexity or cost, and announced the launch of an online investment tracking tool.

Comment on this article in The Forum.During the fourth quarter of fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, federal agencies decreased the number of risky IT investments by 30 percent, from 477 the previous quarter to 333. OMB places IT projects on the high-risk list if they're costly, have a governmentwide impact or raise management concerns. Agencies must evaluate and report on the status of these projects quarterly.

To calculate the final fiscal 2008 high-risk list, however, OMB had to tack on 216 investments that remained on a separate management watch list at the end of fourth quarter. This brought the total number of high-risk projects in agency portfolios to 549, which still is a drop of 9 percent from the total number of such projects identified when President Bush released his fiscal 2009 budget request in February.

"If an investment on the management watch list has [issues that] an agency has not addressed, it gets moved over to the high-risk list," said Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and IT at OMB. "We were tough about portfolios this year." The issues that most often landed projects on the high-risk list related to cybersecurity and privacy, she said.

The 216 investments left on the management watch list for the fourth quarter of fiscal 2008 marked a 63 percent decrease compared to the original 585 investments announced in February. Investments are placed on the management watch list for targeted follow-up when they contain one or more planning weaknesses.

Of individual agencies, the Treasury Department reported the most high-risk projects, with a total of 69. Only four of these were holdovers from the management watch list, according to the OMB report. The Homeland Security Department reported a total of 44 high-risk projects, 16 of which were moved from the management list, and the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments reported 75 and 52 projects respectively on the high-risk list, though in both cases the majority of those projects were holdovers from the management watch list.

OMB also announced the availability of the Visualization for Understanding Expenditures in IT, or VUE-IT, tool, which allows agency employees, representatives from Congress and interest groups, and private citizens to monitor federal IT spending. Users can filter data by agency, status on risk lists, or area of focus, such as services to citizens or management of government resources.

According to the tool, 42 percent of the $71 billion IT budget for fiscal 2009 is allocated to citizens' services, and 47 percent is allocated to the back-office management of resources. The information will be updated according to the OMB release cycle, with data about management-watch and high-risk lists updated quarterly, and federal IT budget information updated every February.

"This is information the agencies already get -- it's just a different way to look at it," Evans said. The tool initially was developed for internal use by OMB, but officials quickly realized the value it could provide not only to agency officials, but to Congress, contractors and others. Developers are in the process of enabling the download of filtered data.

"We are always asked, 'How are you managing $70 billion?' This tool shows that," Evans said.