Senators question Treasury’s transparency of its IT projects

Two key Senate lawmakers are questioning the Treasury Department’s inconsistencies in reporting the health of its major technology projects.

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, respectively, wrote to Treasury Chief Information Officer Sonny Bhagowalia on April 20 asking him for details on the status of seven IRS IT projects.

The senators wrote that the IRS Chief Technology Officer Terry Milholland briefs the committee quarterly on the status of 13 high-risk bureau programs. During the most recent briefing and as outlined in the February 2015 Government Accountability Office report, Milholland told the committee that in the fourth quarter of 2014, three projects received a “red” rating and four received a “yellow” rating based on the program’s performance against cost, schedule and overall performance ratings.

But Johnson and Carper said the IT Dashboard shows Bhagowalia’s rating of these programs as “green” and none of the Treasury’s 60-plus major IT programs were rated as “red” or “yellow” over the last year or so.

“The value of the IT Dashboard to taxpayers is dependent upon the accuracy and timeliness of the risk information it displays,” the senators wrote. “Inaccurate or dated information prevents the public from understanding how their tax dollars are being used and inhibits Congress’ ability to track the progress of IT projects over time. As such, we are concerned that a number of agencies appear to be reporting questionable risk ratings for their respective IT projects.”

The IRS is expected to spend about $1.5 billion in fiscal 2015 on the seven projects in question.

Johnson and Carper asked Bhagowalia to answer three questions by May 8.

  • Please explain the discrepancy between the risk assessments provided to Congress by the IRS CTO and the CIO evaluations displayed on the IT Dashboard. Specifically, explain how the IRS CTO could report to Congress significant risks in IRS’s major IT projects, yet those same projects be labeled as “green” on the IT Dashboard by the Treasury CIO. Further, please explain the degree to which you utilize the knowledge of the IRS CTO and relevant program managers in formulating your CIO evaluation ratings for these projects.
  • In general, please explain the degree to which you utilize the knowledge of component-level CTOs and CIOs in determining your CIO evaluation ratings, in what cases you may disagree with their assessments, and your process for integrating their knowledge of Treasury’s major IT projects into your IT Dashboard CIO evaluations.
  • Please explain why Treasury currently displays zero major IT projects as “red” and only eight projects as “yellow” on the IT Dashboard.

A Treasury spokesman said the agency had no comment on the letter.

Bhagowalia joined Treasury in October after spending the last three years as the technology executive in the state of Hawaii. He replaced Robyn East who had been CIO for three years previously.

The IT Dashboard shows 59 major IT programs for Treasury worth $2.9 billion. Of those 59 major projects, Bhagowalia rated 83 percent of them green and 17 percent yellow. For meeting cost metrics, Treasury says 66 percent are green, 19 percent are yellow and 15 percent are red. For meeting schedule goals, Treasury says 76 percent of the projects are green, 11 percent are yellow and 13 percent are red.

The IRS reported on 177 major projects worth $1.9 billion. The CIO evaluation shows 91 percent are green and 9 percent are yellow. For meeting cost metrics, the IRS says 59 percent are green, 28 percent are yellow and 14 percent are red. For meeting schedule goals, the IRS says 82 percent are green, 8 percent are yellow and 10 percent are red.

But these numbers may be considered questionable as GAO reported in February that the IRS’ reporting of progress in meeting cost, schedule and performance metrics continues to be faulty.

The report says the IRS only partially implemented two of five recommendations to improve cost, schedule and performance reporting.

“Until the agency fully implements the prior recommendations highlighted in our review, the information Congress receives will not be reliable for effective decision making and oversight,” auditors wrote in the report.

There has been a long-running debate between GAO and the Office of Management and Budget over the timeliness of the information contained in the dashboard.

At the most recent hearing in January 2014, GAO says OMB’s decision to withhold updates until the annual budget is made public hurts the overall effectiveness of the tool.

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