Federal IT Project Failures: Proposed Legislation Aims to Stop the Insanity

The Information Technology Investment Oversight and Waste Prevention Act aims to heighten accountability for federal IT project failures. Mitch Bishop, the CMO of visualization software provider iRise, spoke with CIO.com about the proposed bill and his company's interest ($$$) in it.

The U.S. Government has a sordid history of IT project failures. There's the FBI's virtual case file system, which the agency scrapped in 2005 after sinking $170 million into it; the $8 billion systems modernization the IRS launched nearly 10 years ago; and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' $190 million automation effort, to name just a few standouts.

Naturally, the government's solution to its IT project management problems has been legislation. The Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996, also known as the Clinger-Cohen Act, requires federal agencies to hire strategic CIOs who can implement best practices for managing IT from the corporate world in the public sector. Agency heads are required under Section 11317 of Title 40 of the U.S. Code to identify in their IT management plans any major IT project that "has significantly deviated from the cost, performance or schedule goals established" for that project.

Now there's new legislation making its way through Congress aimed at improving the success rates of federal IT projects. If passed, the Information Technology Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act of 2008 would provide more accountability for federal IT project failures. In short, it would require agency heads and their CIOs to report to the appropriate congressional committee and to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on their agency's most mission-critical IT projects that don't meet original performance requirements or exceed original cost and schedule estimates by 20 percent or more.

In the event of a cost or schedule overrun of 40 percent or more, the Information Technology Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act specifies remedial actions agencies need to take to get projects back on track, including identifying three cost-effective alternatives to the ailing project. The proposed bill would also require the Office of Management and Budget's e-government administrator to put together a special team of certified project and program managers from the public and private sectors to help agencies avoid cost and schedule overruns.

The question is, will this legislation finally do the trick, or is it just a way for the IT industry to get more of the government's business in consulting contracts and software licenses?

CIO.com's Meridith Levinson spoke to Mitch Bishop, CMO of visualization software provider iRise, which is a proponent of the legislation, about the IT Waste Prevention Act and iRise's interest in it. Bishop isn't even convinced the bill, which he says is likely to be passed in 2009, will be sufficient to prevent federal IT projects from careening out of control.

CIO: Do you really think this legislation, if passed, is going to make a difference in the success or failure of federal IT projects?

Mitch Bishop: I don't know if it's going to make a difference or not, but what will be different is that projects in distress will be much more visible. What's different here is the level of transparency. We'll finally be able to track root causes for these failures. Our point of view is that many projects that are already in distress—much of that failure is tied to bad requirements.

If federal agencies are only reporting on projects once they're in distress, what good does that do? Isn't that too little, too late?

It remains to be seen whether it will improve the success rate of the project. It will certainly draw attention to the projects that are successful and the projects in distress that are using public money. Long term, it will have a net positive effect in preventing failures because failures will be more transparent and more publicly accessible. There are already a lot of projects in distress, but how many of them have we heard about?

Do you think this legislation will really help get at root causes, or will it just create more government bureaucracy?

The reporting may be bureaucracy, but Norm Brown [executive director of the Center for Program Transformation, who testified before a senate subcommittee on the dismal state of federal IT projects] is recommending that IT professionals from the private sector help get these projects back on the rails and get a set of best practices from the commercial world to become standard for government IT.

Has iRise had any hand in crafting this legislation? What's iRise's interest in the Waste Prevention Act?

iRise has not had any part in crafting this legislation. It drew our attention because the problems they're describing in this testimony are exactly the problems we help solve. We have a federal sector office now. We see the federal IT business as an opportunity for us, not only to sell our product and get visualization in use in the federal government but also as a way to help improve the efficiency of tax-payer dollars.

By throwing more tax-payer dollars into the purchase of software?

Our customers tell us that using iRise, they're able to get their projects to market twice as fast with about 30 percent less cost. We're trying to apply best practices from the commercial side into the federal IT space. If we were a startup without much success, I could understand it remains to be seen, but we have had real documented commercial success on the private side that we think could be applied here.

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