GAO, OMB still not seeing eye-to-eye on pace of IT Dashboard updates

The Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office continue to disagree over how often the public version of the IT Dashboard should be updated.

For the seventh time since the administration launched the technology project oversight initiative in June 2009, GAO made its case to lawmakers that OMB’s decision to withhold updates until the annual budget is made public hurts the overall effectiveness of the tool.

“We previously recommended that OMB clarify guidance on whether certain types of systems should be included in IT reporting, but OMB did not agree. Agencies’ subsequent decisions to remove investments from the dashboard by changing investments’ categorizations represent a troubling trend toward decreased transparency and accountability,” GAO said in its latest report on the IT Dashboard released Monday. “Thus, we continue to believe that our prior recommendation remains valid and should be implemented. Additionally, OMB’s annual freeze of the dashboard for as long as eight months negates one of the primary purposes of this valuable tool-to facilitate transparency and oversight of the government’s billions of dollars in IT investments.”

GAO found over the last two years, the IT Dashboard hadn’t been updated in 15 of those months, specifically around budget formulation efforts.

Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel responded to GAO’s report, saying the administration continues to believe publishing the current information on the IT Dashboard would be pre-decisional and could impact the “confidentiality of the deliberations that are at the core of the budget-development process, which involves the identification, evaluation and consideration of budgetary alternatives.”

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VanRoekel wrote that preserving that confidentiality has been a “longstanding Executive Branch interest.”

Auditors disagreed that all information was pre-decisional.

“[T]he CIO rating does not contain any of the information that the dashboard’s web page for frequently asked questions identifies as predecisional, namely: ‘new’ investments, planned IT spending levels in the budget year, costs of projects and activities that were completed during or after the budget year, and eliminated or downgraded investments,” GAO said. “Given that the CIO rating does not include such data, the rating could be updated independent of the budget process without disclosing information that OMB views as predecisional. However, by withholding current investment performance information for much of the year, OMB decreases the utility of the dashboard as a tool for greater IT investment oversight and transparency.”

But VanRoekel said during the budget development period, agencies do not separate out the CIO ratings and other pre-decisional data, making it hard to release one set of data without releasing the other.

An OMB staff member from the Office of E-Government and Information Technology told GAO that the CIO rating should be a current assessment of future performance based on historical results and is the only dashboard performance indicator that has been defined and produced the same way since the dashboard’s inception.

VanRoekel said OMB would relook at its processes to update the IT Dashboard more regularly.

“In evaluating whether changes could be made that would make it practicable to post additional information on the IT Dashboard during the budget-development period, we will consider the extent to which factual information can be more easily separated from the predecisional deliberative materials through the adoption of such approaches as revising the data model, application design and agency submission systems, providing more extensive training and guidance to agencies regarding the preparation of their submissions and undertaking an additional manual review of the submissions,” he said.

VanRoekel also said OMB has no plans to update the guidance to help agencies determine their major IT investments outside of the normal annual A-11 guidance development.

That was another point of GAO’s contention. GAO reviewed 10 agencies and found major inconsistencies in how they reported major IT investments. For instance, auditors found five of 10 agencies said research and development investments were major IT projects.

Additionally, agencies have removed projects from the dashboard that were once considered major IT investments.

“For example, as part of the most recent budget process, Energy officials reported several of Energy’s supercomputer investments as facilities rather than IT, thus removing those investments from the Dashboard and accounting for a portion of the recent decrease in investments. Energy officials also stated that OMB approved this change,” GAO stated. “These investments account for $368 million, or almost 25 percent, of Energy’s fiscal year 2012 IT spending, and include the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Sequoia system, which Energy reported as the most powerful computing system in the world as of June 2012. According to Energy officials, these investments were recategorized because they include both supercomputers and laboratory facilities (which are not IT).”

GAO said the recategorization of projects flies in the face of the Clinger-Cohen Act’s definition of a major IT system.

“A staff member from the Office of E-Government stated that OMB could not stop agencies from making such recategorizations and that OMB had no control over such agency decisions,” GAO reported. “By gathering incomplete information on IT investments, OMB increases the risk of not fulfilling its oversight responsibilities, of agencies making inefficient and ineffective investment decisions, and of Congress and the public being misinformed as to the performance of federal IT investments.”

Overall, GAO found the dashboard makes a difference in improving visibility into the performance of IT projects. But auditors say agencies still struggled to accurately and consistently determine risk of their projects and present that risk on the dashboard.

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