GAO: cloud saved agencies $300 million, but data is incomplete

Agencies are investing more in cloud and saving hundreds of millions of dollars as a result — but cloud investments still only represent a fraction of government IT purchases, and data on their cost and savings is far from complete.

cloud (Phaigraphic/

Agencies are investing more in cloud and reporting savings of hundreds of millions of dollars as a result -- but cloud investments still represent only a fraction of government IT purchases, and data on their cost and savings is far from complete.

That's according to a new Government Accountability Office report on federal agency cloud usage and savings.

Across the 16 agencies GAO looked at for its report, about 11 percent of agencies' planned fiscal year 2019 IT investments use cloud computing services, as reported to the IT dashboard — a two percentage point bump over the fiscal 2017 and 2018 levels.

The agencies with the largest percent increases in cloud services since fiscal year 2016 are the General Services and Social Security Administrations, followed by the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce. Just four agencies reported a smaller percentage of their IT investments going to cloud services: the Departments of Defense, Education, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. 

The broad increase in cloud investment is saving agencies money, too. According to GAO, 13 agencies reported saving $291 million since 2014 by using cloud services. And officials from 15 of the 16 agencies GAO reviewed said cloud provided "significant benefits" that included improved customer service and more cost-effective IT management.

But data shortcomings remain. 

Officials from the 13 agencies acknowledged the data was incomplete, as it was "only tracked on an ad hoc basis for certain cloud investments."

Agencies also continue to struggle with actually assessing their investments in cloud services. OMB guidance requires agencies to evaluate each of their cloud service investments and include the evaluation in their annual budget submissions. Agencies did not complete these requisite assessments for about 16 percent of cloud-related IT investments. GSA and State were the only two agencies to complete an assessment for all cloud-related IT investments. More than half of the cloud investments of SSA and the Department of Treasury went unassessed.

GAO noted, however, the changes in OMB guidance since 2015 "created confusion" about what investment data needs to be tracked and reported, particularly when cloud acquisitions were part of larger purchases.

As a result, OMB staff told auditors "that agency-reported cloud spending data are underreported and stated that the IT Dashboard reflects only a fraction of actual federal spending on cloud services." They added, however, that the new guidance from OMB should clarify confusion and increase consistency, as it will require agencies to report total cloud costs by investment.

Most agencies typically agreed with GAO's recommendations that they should establish ways to consistently track savings. The Defense Department did not, however, stating it "does not currently plan to capture savings and cost avoidance associated with migration or deployment of cloud services," and citing the lack of a "standard, consistent" way to collect such information.