OMB pressing agencies to get IT projects on track

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra says there are $27 billion in IT projects that are troubled. The administration will issue a new strategy to expand the use of TechStat...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Veterans Affairs Department will meet the next milestone under the new GI Bill on time and on budget.

Roger Baker, VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology, says by June 30 the department will launch all the functionality required to process education reimbursements for the fall semester, which is the biggest registration period of the year for veterans.

“We had issues last year in meeting the demand because we had semi-automated tools,” says Baker Tuesday at the Government Leadership Summit sponsored by Information Week in Washington. “The new solution has already shown substantial improvements in our testing and we look forward to it going in, being flawless and being what we use to process in the fall.”

Baker says VA’s expected success with the system to meet part of the GI bill is a direct result in its new project management approach, called the Program Management Accountability System (PMAS).

“The GI Bill is kind of the poster child for PMAS,” he says. “It’s the first completed end to end project done under that methodology. We required deliveries every six months and from the first delivery on, it’s every three months. They have met schedule every time.”

VA’s experience and success in instituting a new approach to project management is spreading across the government.

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra says OMB has been leading TechStat sessions for the last 6 months. In these meetings, OMB and the agency with problematic project analyze the current status to figure out whether to fix or end it.

He says OMB wants to take the concept down to the agency level through a new strategy.

“We encourage CIOs across the government to attend TechStat sessions,” Kundra says. “We’ve looked at how the current investment review boards run versus how the TechStat sessions run. And part of what we want to scale across the federal government are some of those best practices to make sure that they are execution focused and they go both wide and deep in terms of issues. The issues are not just the tech side, but culture, management, procurement issues across the board.”

Kundra says OMB wants to make sure the model is perfected before they expand it across the government.

He adds TechStat is forthcoming and not as far off as some would think.

Kundra says these reviews are necessary because there are more than $27 billion in projects that are off schedule, over budget or both.

Another way OMB is pushing project reviews into agencies is through the fiscal 2012 budget guidance. OMB director Peter Orszag last week mandated agencies cut 5 percent from their budget submissions by ending low performing programs or those that do not meet the agency’s mission. The guidance also focuses heavily on technology management.

Kundra says CIOs should review projects that are behind schedule or over budget before asking for more money in 2012.

“We will be reviewing how these projects are performing and making sure that we don’t continue to throw good money after bad money and that we take a hard stance in terms of performance and the 2012 budgeting process will reflect that,” he says.

Several agency CIOs say TechStat sessions are breathing fresh air into a review process that didn’t always work well.

Danny Harris, the Education Department CIO, says previously when projects went south, there was political pressure to keep them going.

“Now the pressure is a community pressure, it’s not a CIO who has to go up against an assistant secretary,” he says. “The entire government is saying ‘Is this a solid, healthy project and if not, let’s be honest and call it what it is, it’s a dog, so let’s pull it and do something else with the money.’ It supports what CIOs have been saying for years.”

Harris adds that having the support from Kundra and OMB to end poorly performing projects is exactly what agencies need.

The TechStat sessions have given some agencies the impetus to begin reviewing their programs ahead of OMB’s mandate.

Harris says his office is collecting data to give to the assistant secretary and Investment Review Board to make a final decision of what goes forward in the 2012 budget.

‘We are ranking each of our business cases and we are ranking each of our segments, and talking about what segments meet the strategic plan better than others,” he says. “We will bring all the data to the table and say, based on our interpretation of our strategic plan and our mission, here is the bang for the buck.”

Jerry Williams, the CIO of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says his agency also is reviewing IT projects using an approach that is similar to Education’s.

Williams says HUD has implemented two technologies to help analyze spending data. A business analysis tool and a mashup tool will help HUD do trend and predictive analyses.

“It gives us an opportunity to compare apples to apples, but the second part of this is to normalize the data so that when you are looking at the data, you are looking at like sets of data,” he says. “The second part of this is to normalize the data so we are looking at like sets of data. That will be the other part of this process as we begin to segment things along business segments, at least for our development activities. Then we will have those kinds of comparisons that could be made.”

Williams adds that HUD is looking across the government to borrow capabilities that others have found successful.

Baker describes the VA’s PMAS approach as part drill sergeant and part culture change. He says every project has to meet milestones every three-to-six months, and those that don’t must have a good reason why. Additionally, Baker says any project that misses three straight deadlines is stopped until he decides whether the program can be fixed.

“We are moving toward an agile approach where the dates drive the deliverables,” he says. “We are driving discipline into a culture where there was none before.”

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