The U.S. government should appoint an independent auditor to monitor every major IT acquisition, in an effort to avoid failed projects, delays and cost overruns, a new report from a tech trade group recommends.
The TechAmerica Foundation's report, released Monday, also calls on the U.S. government to create a program management school and to promote more incremental tech projects, instead of large-scale, multiyear implementations.
Federal IT contracting reform is needed because there have been too many failures with major implementations, said the report, authored by a 31-person commission, including representatives of Northrop Grumman, Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard.
In August, the White House Office of Management and Budget announced it was suspending 26 IT projects worth about US$30 billion while it reviewed why they weren't working, and the Obama administration has "significant concerns" about 55 of 794 current major IT projects, according to the Federal IT Dashboard.
"The administration accurately pointed out that there is a significant productivity gap between government IT and IT across the rest of the private sector," Phillip Bond, TechAmerica's president and CEO, said during a press conference. "That gap is important, given that over the past 10 years, the government has invested more than 600 billion taxpayer dollars in these IT systems."
Despite longtime problems with IT contracting, there's been "frustratingly little action" to fix the process, Bond said.
The commission recommended independent auditors as a way to quickly identify risks associated with federal IT projects, said Linda Gooden, commission co-chair and executive vice president of Lockheed Martin's Information Systems and Global Services division. "Most of us know inherently that projects, particularly large, complex IT projects, have a high level of risk," she said. "But why isn't that risk known early on, why isn't it identified and then, mitigations put in place?"
The report recommends a "no-fear zone" where contractors could come to government agencies and talk about problems without worrying about being penalized, she said.
Government agencies should also assign program managers to large IT projects from the beginning, including at the request for proposal stage, the report recommends. In some cases, the TechAmerica commission found government program managers in charge of eight IT projects, said Steve Kelman, commission co-chair and a professor in Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government
That workload for program managers is "almost a guarantee" of problems, Kelman said.
The report, in its 33-point action plan, also recommends that high-level agency officials take ownership of IT projects, and that government agencies focus on improving communication and collaboration with IT contractors. Improved communication was a top concern voiced by IT vendors the commission interviewed, the report said.
"Currently the [contracting] process does not prohibit dialogue between industry and government, but it doesn't encourage dialogue either," the report said. "The government culture has become risk-adverse. Concerns with protests, and additional oversight and processes, often drive extended timelines during acquisition and execution phases of a program. This behavior inhibits stakeholders from talking more within government and with industry, so as not to extend these timelines further. This is not a wise time economy for the government."
While other reports have focused on problems with IT contracting, the TechAmerica paper focuses on ways to fix the problem and on the government side of the contracting equation, Kelman said. This report also has the support of several major IT contractors, he added.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.