The IT Dashboard: Not Exactly Transparent

The transparency site’s big promises aren’t holding up in the light of day.

Is the Federal IT Dashboard really providing more transparency or just more fog?

That question lingers in the aftermath of a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing on the government’s information technology reform programs last week.

The IT Dashboard lists the status of about 700 major government IT projects. It was launched as part of President Obama’s open government initiatives in 2009. The dashboard’s aim, according to officials, was to “strengthen the accountability of agency CIOs and provide more accurate and detailed information on projects and activities.”

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., the ranking member on the oversight panel, asked federal CIO Steven VanRoekel about the dashboard in the hearing Thursday. Specifically, he asked why the Defense Department, by far the government’s largest IT spender, hasn’t updated many of its project entries in two years and why it doesn’t describe any projects as high risk or moderately high risk, despite many of them being over budget and past deadline.

VanRoekel’s reply is worth quoting at length.

We don’t in OMB, in my office, track the self-reported status as the key indicator of performance on investments. It’s a fool’s errand to track self-reported. You’d never have a contractor self-report their results or things like that. So we go deeper than that and look at: How often do they change schedules? Where are they on budget? Are they hitting budget? What’s their time to delivery on services?

I’ve actually added features on the IT Dashboard in the last couple years that give me indications when agencies go in and do re-baselines, meaning they’ve changed their data in some fundamental way. Those, to me, are the red flags you want to look at and that’s where we’ll lift up and say ‘there’s something going on there.’ Self assessments will just never do that for you.

I agree, it’s laughable to some degree on DOD not reporting any poor investments. But we track [those investments] and we know where they are.

VanRoekel has indeed added the rebaseline indicators to the IT Dashboard, indicated by tiny white triangles placed along a line indicating the CIO’s appraisal of a project’s risk.

Describing an IT project, say  the Defense Department’s clinical health data system AHLTA, which still can’t speak to its counterpart at the Veterans Affairs Department, as having a three out of five CIO rating with two rebaselines since 2009 doesn’t exactly give the public a clear idea of how well the project is performing, though.

VanRoekel continued:

The second part of it is CIO authorities, looking at the authority of the CIO. The person who’s pictured next to all those investments is [Defense CIO] Teri Takai. Teri Takai has very little influence over most of the investments you’re looking at on that dashboard and she’s reporting what she gets from the self-reports of other people out there. That speaks to a larger theme of what we need to look at in government, which is the authority of the CIO.

This, of course, gives the lie to one of the dashboard’s main promises: “If a project is over budget or behind schedule, you can see by how much money and time, and you can see the person responsible--not just contact information but also their picture.”

Federal officials can be forgiven some hyperbole about their transparency initiatives. And the problem of CIO authority and accountability is much larger than the IT Dashboard and more complex as well. But with so many provisos attached to the Dashboard’s promises now, it may be time to rebaseline expectations for it as well.