GAO: Hundreds of federal IT projects are poorly planned and underperforming

Senators to introduce legislation to force agencies to report significant cost overruns and delays.

More than 400 federal information technology projects valued at $25 billion have been poorly planned or performing under expectations - or both, the Government Accountability Office planned to tell a Senate hearing on Thursday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.GAO identified the projects from the Office of Management and Budget's management watch list and its high-risk list, both of which include IT projects that present agencies with challenges to stay within budget, on time and perform as expected. The agency found 352 projects valued at about $23.4 billion on the management watch list to be poorly planned. Agencies reported 87 of their high-risk projects valued at about $4.8 billion were poorly performing. GAO determined that 26 projects, valued at about $3 billion, were both poorly planned and poorly performing.

The audit office was scheduled to deliver its findings to the Senate's Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security subcommittee.

"Today, many agencies in the federal government are being allowed to spend billions of taxpayer dollars on plans that are duplicative, have no clear goals, and are managed by unqualified individuals," subcommittee chairman Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., wrote in an e-mail. "This is simply unacceptable and it makes me wonder whether it's time for Congress to pull the plug on some of these failed investments."

While there has been improvement in how projects are identified for the lists since September 2007, "more needs to be done by both OMB and the agencies to address recommendations GAO has previously made to improve the planning, management and oversight of poorly planned and performing projects so that potentially billions in taxpayer dollars are not wasted," the watchdog agency said.

OMB has yet to publicly disclose the performance shortfalls that lead the agency to classify projects as high risk, according to the report.

GAO also noted that 48 percent of the government's major IT projects have experienced cost, schedule and performance goals changes - a process known as rebaselining. The purpose of rebaselining is to ensure that project managers have realistic benchmarks for tracking the status of a project. While the practice can be done for valid reasons - such as changing a project's scope, requirements or funding stream -- it also can be used to mask cost overruns and delays.

Fifty-one percent of projects were rebaselined at least twice and 11 percent were rebaselined four times or more, which indicates serious problems with planning, GAO reported. The agency recommended that OMB issue guidance for rebaselining policies.

Carper also announced plans to introduce legislation along with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that will make agencies report significant deviations on cost, schedule and performance in IT projects. The legislation states that agencies may not have the skills needed to manage complex IT investments, and calls for the creation of an "IT strike force," composed of specialists inside and outside of government that agencies can use as a resource before a project spirals out of control.