Federal IT Flunks Out

By Allan Holmes
Mon, May 15, 2006


Last December, about 60 people—members of the IT staff at the U.S. Transportation Department and friends—gathered in a large conference room in the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to say goodbye to Dan Matthews, Transportation’s CIO for nearly three years. Matthews was leaving to work for Lockheed Martin. John Flaherty, chief of staff for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, stood up to say a few words about Matthews’ accomplishments, pointing out that Matthews was always quick to help Mineta when his BlackBerry wasn’t working.

Flaherty wasn’t kidding.

A number of people present saw Flaherty’s comment as a perfect illustration of why IT at the federal level is so troubled. Government CIOs are still seen as guys who fix BlackBerrys.

"Agency executives know that CIOs provide a vital resource to organizations—they just don’t know what it is," Matthews wrote in an e-mail about the incident.

If you’re thinking there oughta be a law against that kind of antediluvian attitude, there is. The Clinger-Cohen Act, passed in a rare act of bipartisanship 10 years ago, outlined steps that were designed to cast federal CIOs in the role of strategists who could help agencies formulate new business processes to streamline operations, improve the delivery of public services and reduce the risk of system disasters that test citizens’ faith in government—and, from time to time, put their lives in danger. Officially known as the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996 (and later renamed the Clinger-Cohen Act after Rep. William Clinger and Sen. William Cohen, who pushed the legislation through), the law demanded that federal agencies follow corporate America’s best practices for managing IT. Agencies were required to hire a CIO, institute investment controls and establish performance goals and metrics to measure progress. The law was hailed as the tool that would finally fix federal IT.

"We really thought we had it nailed," says Paul Brubaker, one of the lead authors of the law when he worked as a Republican staff director for Cohen. "We were going to change the way government managed IT and in doing so, possibly change government."

Obviously, that hasn’t happened.

Roots of the Problem

Federal IT systems are still failing at an alarming rate nearly 10 years after Clinger-Cohen was signed into law by President Clinton. For example, of 16 IT projects in the Federal Aviation Administration’s massive 25-year-old modernization program, 13 are over budget, ranging from $1.1 million to $1.5 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Army’s Future Combat System—a fully integrated set of networks to deliver real-time information to the battlefield through sensors that pinpoint high-tech weapons—could come in as much as $130 billion over its original 2001 budget estimate of $70 billion. The Interior Department’s IT systems have proved so insecure that over the past three years a federal judge has repeatedly ordered the department to shut down all its Internet access. The list goes on, with the IRS’s repeated failures to modernize and the disaster of the FBI’s virtual case file system merely two of the most well-publicized examples.

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