COMMENTARY

Budget reveals a promising new IT agenda

Washington has no shortage of rituals, but few seem to draw more commotion or are parsed for deeper meaning than the annual unveiling of the president’s budget.

Now that the budget documents are electronically certified and made available online, the traditional release of freshly bound tomes at the Government Printing Office before a phalanx of photographers seems rather quaint.

Nevertheless, for those of us who follow the information technology money flowing into federal agencies, this year’s budget was notable on several counts.

As with all federal budget proposals, the numbers speak more about intent than eventual reality. At least as far as IT initiatives are concerned, this year’s proposal — the first the Obama administration can call its own — reinforced the administration’s emphasis on gathering and communicating performance information to improve outcomes and strengthen problem-solving networks.

Of course, measuring performance to improve performance doesn’t sound that different from what past administrations have promised. What is different is the emphasis on using new technology tools and the broader public to expose performance information and make smarter decisions.

Many of the tools the administration is banking on are still in the early stages of development. And it’s not clear that the kind of transparency these tools are expected to provide will translate into lasting improvements in the way agencies operate.

Nevertheless, the rapid adoption and support for tools such as the IT Dashboard, created to detect IT investment problems, and Tech Stat, which borrows from a Citi-Stat approach to tracking key performance indicators, are examples of technology innovation headed in the right direction. Certainly, these tools take a more enlightened approach than the red, yellow and green quarterly Program Assessment Rating Tool scores that the Office of Management and Budget of the prior administration used.

Many remain skeptical of the administration’s fixation on dashboards, but the underlying premise reflected in this year’s IT spending proposals — which call for tapping into broader communities of technology developers to accelerate government IT innovation — represents another shift in the right direction.

One of the many new investments we’ll be watching closely in the $79.4 billion IT spending proposal is $50 million that OMB has requested to accelerate new cross-governmental computing strategies, such as cloud computing, data center consolidation and enterprisewide support systems.

Of course, when the Bush administration sought $35 million to fund cross-agency e-government initiatives, appropriators — skeptical of horizontal governmental initiatives — agreed to fund only one-tenth of that amount.

Let’s hope this time will be different. The government needs all the IT help it can get.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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