GAO highlights 9 critical success factors for IT projects

David Powner, Director of Information Technology Management Issues, GAO

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Success in developing federal technology systems depends on nine factors, most importantly ensuring the program officials are actively engaged with the users of the new system.

The Government Accountability Office reviewed seven initiatives worth $5 billion, and determined why these IT systems met their cost, schedule and performance goals.

“Nine factors were identified as critical to the success of three or more of the seven IT investments. The factors most commonly identified include active engagement of stakeholders, program staff with the necessary knowledge and skills, and senior department and agency executive support for the program,” GAO said in its report to Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.), all members of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “These nine critical success factors are consistent with leading industry practices for IT acquisitions.”

GAO looked at large-scale IT systems from the departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs. The systems ranged in cost from $43 million to $2 billion, and were both internal to the agency and external to citizens.

Although these projects varied in size and type, they shared some common themes, said David Powner, the director of Information Technology Management Issues at GAO, in an interview with In Depth with Francis Rose.

“All seven, in one form or another, attacked the development process in terms of phases and increments,” Powner said. He added that two of the projects used the agile development method.

“History has shown that government IT projects frequently face challenges of meeting cost, schedule, or performance goals,” said Collins, ranking member of the committee, in a statement. “It is imperative that the government learn not only from its past mistakes, but from its successes. I urge agencies across the government to adopt the best practices identified by this report, which will help ensure that taxpayer dollars are invested wisely.”

The report also will give the lawmakers more data for their bill. The Senators, as well as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), introduced the Information Technology Investment Management Act of 2011, which seeks to better monitor the federal government’s $80 billion IT portfolio and requires troubled projects be fixed or terminated, in April. The bill has not moved out of committee since the members introduced it.

The senators said GAO’s findings give them more reason to push the bill forward.

“This GAO report provides the federal government with valuable guidance on how we can achieve better results for less money when it comes to our information technology portfolio,” Carper said in a statement. “I hope federal agencies heed these recommendations and incorporate these practices into their IT management where possible. I look forward to working with my colleagues and the Administration to ensure that we continue to improve our nation’s information technology management.”

The Obama administration also is focusing on improving IT project management. The 25-point IT reform plan highlights several initiatives, including the use of agile or modular development for projects, the use of TechStat and AcqStat sessions to ensure high-priority programs are on track and the creation of competency standards for contracting officer technical representatives.

GAO said the report’s findings complement the Office of Management and Budget’s efforts to improve federal IT projects.

Of the nine critical factors, only constant program manager and stakeholder engagement was used by every program.

“Agency officials stated that stakeholders, among other things, reviewed contractor proposals during the procurement process, regularly attended program management office sponsored meetings, were working members of integrated project teams and were notified of problems and concerns as soon as possible,” auditors wrote.

But two others, ensuring program staff have the necessary knowledge and skills and senior department executives supported the programs, were factors in six of seven projects.

“This included knowledge of acquisitions and procurement processes, monitoring of contracts, large-scale organizational transformation, agile software development concepts, and areas of program management such as earned value management and technical monitoring,” GAO found. “According to those officials, these senior leaders supported the success of these programs in various ways, such as by procuring funding, providing necessary information at critical times, intervening when there were difficulties working with another department, defining a vision for the program, and ensuring that end users participated in the development of the system.”

Two others, customers and stakeholders being involved in the development of requirements and involved in the testing of the system’s functionality, showed up in five of programs.

GAO also said agencies identified three other factors that contributed to their success:

  • Use of agile software development
  • Having a streamlined and targeted governance process
  • Performing continuous risk management of the program


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