Federal chief information officer Steven VanRoekel called the bungled rollout of Healthcare.gov a “teachable moment.” Unfortunately, it is just the latest in a long string of teachable moments concerning federal information technology projects.
Better would be that the disastrous Healthcare.gov rollout become a rallying moment — for lawmakers and policymakers to make long-needed fixes to federal IT procurement.
The Government Accountability Office has issued numerous reports in recent years highlighting billions of dollars in wasted IT investments. “Too often,” the GAO said in a report last month, “federal IT projects run over budget, behind schedule, or fail to deliver promised functionality.” Federal agencies spent more than $600 billion on IT over the past decade, only to achieve “little of the productivity improvements that private industry has realized from IT,” the report said.
In some egregious cases — as with the Air Force’s enterprise logistics system, the Office of Personnel Management retirement system and the FBI’s case-management system — hundreds of millions of dollars were spent with virtually nothing to show for it.
Rather than trying to score political points over the Healthcare.gov problems, lawmakers should focus on fixing the well-known problems that plague federal IT investments:
■Federal CIOs often lack the authorities they need to ensure their projects are smartly planned, budgeted and managed. CIOs should be given the clout to decide IT budgets and requirements and to overrule other program managers or agency managers on decisions that are critical to the success of priority IT projects.
■Responsibilities for IT project success are often unclear. For example, it remains unclear who, if anyone, has sole responsibility for Healthcare.gov’s success from an IT management perspective. Federal CIOs should be held solely responsible — and accountable — for the success of the IT projects under their watch.
■Federal IT managers and staffs often lack the experience and expertise needed to coordinate and manage large, complex projects. There must be more investment in IT project management training and exchange programs allowing federal IT managers to work temporarily in the private sector to gain insights into commercial best practices.
■Federal IT managers do a poor job of collecting accurate, timely and relevant performance data on their projects with which to make critical management decisions. For example, the GAO found that data on the government’s IT Dashboard — which tracks the performance of large federal IT projects — is often old and inaccurate. There must be more accountability and priority placed on ensuring that IT project staffs are tracking the right data in a timely way.