Top IT officials say transparency will improve project management

Chief information and technology officers tell senators open government directive will increase oversight of investments.

Increased transparency will help technology projects stay on track, Obama administration officials told a Senate panel on Thursday.

Lack of publicly available, up-to-date information on federal IT investments is part of the reason projects often are delivered behind schedule and over budget, federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra testified before the Senate Budget Committee. Kundra specifically criticized the Office of Management and Budget's watch list of projects with weaknesses in their business cases, saying it was "little more than a static PDF document on a Web site."

"This compliance-based approach was carried out behind closed doors with little evidence of improved performance," Kundra told the senators. He said the IT spending dashboard launched in June exemplifies the Obama administration's new approach, which aims to give the public more real-time information about the status of investments.

The Veterans Affairs Department used the IT spending dashboard to pause or halt 45 projects, Chief Information Officer Roger Baker told the panel. All but 12 have since resumed with "an increased probability of success," according to Baker.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said more must be done to prevent IT projects from ballooning once they are awarded, a phenomenon known as scope creep. "My sense from the governor's side is that the common practice is to contract an IT firm to develop a narrow project, and then the project constantly expands because there's no oversight," Warner said.

Kundra said the government too often takes a big-bang approach to systems development, giving contractors a lengthy list of requirements with expectation of delivery a few years down the road. He said projects should to be broken down into smaller segments and CIOs must be directly engaged with agency decision-makers at the strategic level.

"Some of these contracts make no sense -- $1 billion for one requirement?" Kundra said. "We need to break these contracts down into smaller chunks, move toward more fixed price contracts and hold vendors accountable to make sure they're delivering."

Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra said the open government directive released this week will help accelerate the process of holding agencies accountable by requiring officials to provide information to the public online in machine-readable formats such as XML. These formats are crucial because they allow third parties to manipulate the data and publish it in more user-friendly ways, Chopra said.

Officials expect feedback from the public to help agencies improve their Web resources.

"The greater attention will strengthen an area that has been a lesser performing asset," Chopra said. "We do a fairly exhaustive list of requirements in the back office, but do a relatively poor job of understanding customer needs."

Kundra also said the federal government does not adequately leverage the more than $70 billion it spends on technology annually. He said combining purchases from various agencies is crucial to getting more for taxpayer dollars.

"Part of what we're trying to do is figure out how we aggregate more demand with a lower threshold," Kundra said. "We want to make it easier to procure technology that's enterprise in nature."