House Oversight Chairman Calls IT Budget Request Misleading

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Poor reporting makes it impossible to tell whether IT spending is up or down, Issa says.

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This post has been updated to add comment from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.

The chairman of the House committee that oversees most government information technology spending on Thursday criticized the $82 billion IT request included in President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal, saying the figure is likely misleading.

The Obama administration has prided itself on holding overall IT spending essentially flat following increases of about 7 percent annually between 2000 and 2009. If that growth rate had continued, annual IT spending would be about $111 billion today.

The $82 billion figure reported by the Office of Management and Budget on Wednesday does not include IT spending by intelligence agencies or by numerous small independent agencies, however. As a result, it’s difficult to say it represents a genuine slowing or halting of government IT spending growth, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said.

Issa cited an Oversight hearing Tuesday. During that hearing Joel Willemssen, managing director of the Government Accountability Office’s IT section, testified that total government IT spending is probably “slightly north of $100 billion” but that, due to incomplete reporting, the actual number remains opaque. (The relevant portion of the hearing is below).

“Of the approximately $80 billion that OMB claims, industry estimates as much as $20 billion is wasted,” Issa added.

Issa closed by advocating passage of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act , which he’s sponsoring along with Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., ranking member of Oversight’s government operations panel. The IT legislation would, among other reforms, give agency chief information officers more flexibility to shift funds between IT projects and to cancel failing projects.

The act passed the Oversight committee in March and is awaiting action by the full House. GAO head Eugene Dodaro effectively endorsed the act in testimony before Issa’s committee Tuesday.

Connolly responded more positively to the proposed budget Thursday.

“I commend the president for proposing a federal IT budget that recognizes our nation must continue to slow the overall growth of IT spending, while preserving and strengthening critical IT initiatives that promote greater accountability, efficiency, and transparency across government,” Connolly said.

For outside government IT watchers, Wednesday’s $82 billion budget request suggested continuity.

The fact that reported IT spending rose about 2 percent in this request after two years of effectively flat requests, shouldn’t be given too much significance, former Commerce Department CIO Alan Balutis said.

“To me, 1 or 2 percent does not a trend make,” said Balutis who is now a director at Cisco's Internet Business Solutions Group. “To me it’s still flat and at a time when a lot of spending is down that’s positive news.”

The stability of IT spending suggests executive branch and congressional officials no longer view IT as a backroom function that can be trimmed during tight financial times, Balutis said.

“It shows the evolution from IT being viewed as a backroom activity to it being viewed as an investment and enabler during tight budget times that allows government to continue to provide and enhance services,” he said.