Why duplication in federal IT happens: ‘We lack transparency and good metrics’

(Photo: Colby Hochmuth/FedScoop) (Photo: Colby Hochmuth/FedScoop)

Sen. Tom Coburn came out swinging at today’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on reducing duplication and improving results in federal IT.

“If we’re not going to give CIOs the authority to do what they need to do, why bother even having CIOs?” asked the Oklahoma congressman, who serves as the committee’s minority ranking member.


The committee met June 11 to hear the testimony from several senior government officials, including Steven VanRoekel, U.S. chief information officer; Simon Szykman, Commerce Department CIO; Frank Baitman, Health and Human Services Department CIO; and David Powner, director of information technology management Issues at the Government Accountability Office.

According to Coburn, it’s the lack of accountability and consequences that allow for so much duplication in federal government. What also adds to the problem, the senator said, is that many CIOs don’t have authority to create transparency in their agencies.

“We’re going backward — the stream is more powerful than our oars,” Coburn said. “A third of the budget isn’t effectively spent; that’s $250 billion in waste because of stupidity. I trust a vast majority of our executives in federal agencies, but I don’t trust our Congress to treat them like dogs.”

This isn’t to say there hasn’t been progress made in recent years. PortfolioStat, launched three years ago, has yielded nearly 100 opportunities to consolidate or eliminate redundant spending, which, according to VanRoekel, could save up to $2.5 billion.

Powner estimated the total savings with PortfolioStat and data center consolidation could add up to $10 billion.


TechStat reviews, performed by the federal CIO of selected IT investments, have had success in identifying flawed IT investments and duplications. More than 1,000 people have been trained to conduct these TechStat investigations.

The Federal IT Dashboard, established in 2009, is useful in rating performance of IT investments against cost and schedule targets. However, as highlighted several times by the committee, not all agencies are accurately reporting to the dashboard, particularly the Defense Department.

“The IT dashboard system is flawed,” Coburn said. “Half of the money we spend goes to the Pentagon, and half of it is wasted. “And yet, the dashboard shows no problems.”

A problem VanRoekel says he is working to fix.

“It used to be that someone could go into the IT dashboard and change their due date on something or budget allocation, and no one would know,” he said. “Now, when someone goes into the system and changes that information, we’re notified.”


The committee also called for improved consolidation of data centers and IT on a federal level. Coburn asked Baitman if he knew where all the HHS data centers and servers are to which he replied, “We have a good idea, but not a complete idea.”

An issue many agencies seem to be facing. According to Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, the average utilization rate of data centers in 2009 was between 5 and 15 percent.

Today’s numbers for utilization rates of data centers are “not where they need to be,” Szykman said.

“Our goal would be around 60 to 70 percent, and we’re nowhere close now, but we’re on the right path,” he added.

However, what the conversation really boiled down to is leadership. Recruiting and maintaining CIOs has been a struggle in recent years, with the government having to compete with the private sector, which often offers higher pay and more incentives. VanRoekel is an example of a private sector leader who made the shift to public office.


“In the top ranks of government leadership, there has been a strain to bring in and keep the most talented people,” he said. “And we do lose them to private sector positions most of the time.”

Baitman, whose work in IT duplication reduction and improved productivity has become the “golden model” for this type of work, said leadership has been one of the most crucial elements to HHS’ success.

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