A Closer Look at a New High Risk Area—Management of Federal Information Technology Acquisitions and Operations

Posted on February 17, 2015

Last week, we issued our 2015 update to our High Risk List. Today, we take a closer look at 1 of the 2 new areas: Management of IT Acquisitions and Operations.

Big Money, Mixed Results

The federal government spends billions on IT investments. In fiscal year 2015, 27 federal agencies plan to invest about $80 billion in IT, about $40 billion of which will go toward major investments, as shown below.

chart1(Excerpted from GAO-15-290)

Unfortunately, many of these investments fail or don’t contribute much toward accomplishing agency missions. For example,

  • DOD spent more than $1 billion on a combat support system that failed to deploy and was ultimately cancelled;
  • HealthCare.gov was late, cost significantly more than anticipated, and didn’t work as planned; and
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs terminated a $231 million project due to management problems.

Over the past 4 years, we’ve reported numerous times on shortcomings with IT acquisitions and operations, resulting in more than 300 recommendations. However, only 20 percent of these have been fully implemented.

The problems we identified and the lack of progress on our recommendations led us to designate improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations as a new government-wide high-risk area in 2015.

Why So Many Failures?

In reviewing failed IT programs, we identified some common themes:

  • Management problems in areas such as planning and defining requirements.
  • A “big bang” approach—that is, programs that aren’t specific enough with their goals and have delivery dates several years after their start dates. This approach often takes too long, is ineffective, and can’t accommodate technology’s rapid evolution.
  • Limited oversight and governance, particularly from chief information officers (CIOs). We found that a lack of review and approval authority over the entire agency IT portfolio may limit CIOs’ ability to provide effective oversight.

So, What’s Being Done?

To improve federal IT efforts, the Office of Management and Budget has launched numerous initiatives, including:

  • “TechStat” meetings to terminate or turn around troubled IT investments;
  • IT Dashboard, a public website that provides performance information on IT investments across the government;
  • annual “PortfolioStat” meetings to review agencies’ IT portfolios; and
  • a government-wide effort to consolidate federal data centers.

Congress has also highlighted this area in a recently enacted law that is intended to strengthen CIOs’ authority and provide the oversight IT projects need.

Explore the issue on our High Risk page on IT acquisitions and operations.

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GAO Contacts
Valerie C. Melvin
Valerie C. Melvin
Managing Director