Report: IT dashboard plagued by outdated data

Watchdog finds website intended to provide near real-time updates on projects' cost and progress doesn't have the latest information.

A public website the Obama administration launched last year to shine a light on $80 billion in federal information technology spending contains inaccurate or outdated data on scheduling and performance, according to a watchdog report released on Tuesday.

The IT Dashboard, which was unveiled in June 2009, provides detailed information on about 800 major IT investments, including assessments of the programs' performance against cost and scheduling targets, known as ratings.

But in a report to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Government Accountability Office investigators found "notable discrepancies" with the ratings of four of eight projects examined.

For example, the dashboard indicated the Health and Human Services Department's Unified Financial Management System was running less than 30 days behind schedule from July 2009 though January 2010. The watchdog, however, examined investment data that showed the financial management program was one to three months behind schedule.

The dashboard also said the Justice Department's Law Enforcement Wireless Communication project has had less than a 5 percent variance in cost since last summer. GAO's analysis found the initiative, which is designed to provide department law enforcement agencies with secure, interoperable and reliable wireless services, had costs fluctuating between 10 percent and 15 percent. The change would have knocked the project's rating down from a score of green to yellow, indicating it required managerial attention. Other programs had ratings that were too low, the report said.

GAO attributed many of the mistakes to the use of outdated data. In one instance, the cost rating for a Defense Department investment was based on data that was nearly two years old.

"A primary reason why the cost and schedule ratings were not always accurate is that the cost and schedule ratings do not take current performance into consideration for many investments on the dashboard, though it is intended to represent near real-time performance information on all major IT investments," GAO said.

The findings disappointed lawmakers who have been critical of federal IT spending.

"Aggressive oversight of the nearly $80 billion in taxpayer money that the federal government spends on IT investments annually is critical to helping ensure the prevention of waste, fraud and abuse," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the oversight committee's ranking member. "We have already seen hundreds of millions of dollars wasted by the federal government due to poorly planned and poorly managed IT projects."

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., added, "No one would feel comfortable jumping into a car and driving off with their family for a road trip without a working dashboard to tell them how the car is handling.... Yet it seems to be common practice for agencies to provide [the Office of Management and Budget] and Congress with inaccurate and out-of-date information on whether their investments are on budget, on schedule and performing as expected."

OMB indicated it is using the dashboard to manage governmentwide IT investments. But officials at three of the five agencies the report examined -- Defense, HHS and Justice -- acknowledged they do not use the site because they have other ways to manage their projects.

Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra disagreed with many of GAO's findings, noting the watchdog mistakenly presumed its "own calculations set the standard for accuracy." Some of the discrepancies found by investigators were relatively minor, he added.

Nonetheless, Kundra plans to update the dashboard later this month to include new cost and schedule calculations. Last week, the administration launched a mobile version of the dashboard for cellular phones.

Kundra also criticized GAO for failing to acknowledge several technical changes officials have made to the dashboard's ratings criteria and for not highlighting how the site has "improved transparency, accountability and oversight." In its final report, GAO relented to the criticisms, adding details about the dashboard's use of trend data and improved oversight capabilities and enhancements to investment management processes.

Carper and Collins, who requested the GAO report, have written to agencies urging them to provide more timely and accurate data. The lawmakers also have introduced legislation that would require officials to alert Congress if IT projects miss deadlines. The 2009 Information Technology Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act passed the Senate in May and is awaiting a House vote.