Living life on the list

Agencies see OMB watch lists as another tool to improve IT projects

We bring in the portfolios that may be in despaired areas and get them to focus on strengthening their business cases.' Charlie Armstrong, DHS deputy CIO

J. Adam Fenster

Now that the Office of Management and Budget has released its management and high-risk watch lists, the question many federal officials now have is, 'What's the big deal?'

'This benefits OMB more than anyone else, with what they are trying to do with their watch lists,' said Charlie Armstrong, Homeland Security Department deputy CIO. 'They are trying to understand what programs of ours are at risk.'

An agency CIO, who requested anonymity, said there is no downside to making known the projects and investments that OMB is paying attention to.

So why did OMB officials refuse to make the lists public for five years?

Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT, said her office released the lists because Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information and International Security, last month asked for the information.

'We don't want the focus to be whether you are on the list and how you get off,' Evans said at a luncheon in Washington sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resource Managers. 'The focus should be on mitigating the risks and getting senior management involvement.'

But if the focus isn't on the lists, then why did OMB refuse all previous requests for the list, even at one time denying they had an aggregate list?

Dan Chenok, a former OMB official and now vice president at SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., said OMB's decision to release the lists could be a matter of being more comfortable with the lists, and part of its desire for more transparency.

'This is the sixth budget cycle [since the watch list was started] and OMB has learned each year how to refine their methodology of what makes a successful project, and what are indicators of problems or high risk,' said Chenok, who was the branch chief for information policy and technology in the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at OMB. 'More questions from Congress would help them bring up the performance of systems that still are on the watch list.'

And now that Coburn has the list, he wants more information. In a letter sent to agency secretaries and administrators, he is asking for a list by Oct. 13 of all IT projects worth at least $250,000.

For each project, agencies are to list the year the project began receiving funding, its original baseline estimate, how much has been spent on it to date, whether there have been any cost overruns and whether the project was ever given a new baseline estimate, along with the amount of the new estimate.

Coburn also wants to know all vendors involved in the project.

'As you know, managing IT projects is a complex and difficult task due to the constant threat of cost overruns, schedule delays and performance deficiencies,' Coburn said in the letter.

OMB started the management watch list, for projects that were at risk of failing, in 2003, and added the high-risk list in 2005 for all investments that were either costly, critical to an agency's mission, or high profile, such as the 25 E-Government projects.

David Powner, the director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said OMB has been providing quarterly updates on the projects' progress.

'About 86 out of the 200 or so projects on the high-risk list are performing poorly,' he said. 'Congress and GAO could help with the oversight of the projects.
This is a positive step in the right direction.'

Powner said GAO and OMB look at four criteria to determine whether projects are performing poorly:
  • Do they have a clear baseline for their cost, schedule and performance goals?

  • Are they within 10 percent of their estimated cost and schedule?

  • Do they have a qualified project manager?

  • Does the project duplicate other projects?

Powner said most of the projects are on the lists because they are not within 10 percent of cost, schedule and performance plans.

DHS has 50 projects on the management watch list'which means each one falls shorts in at least one of the four criteria.

Armstrong said that, while DHS is negotiating with OMB to remove about 30 projects from the list because they have made progress, the list itself provides a starting point for the discussion with OMB about IT projects, and focuses on specific areas.

'We bring in the portfolios that may be in despaired areas and get them to focus on strengthening their business cases,' he said. 'We also have training programs on how to do business cases'what goes into making a good return on investment case or a good program plan. We try to base policies and management directives around elements that could help raise these scores.'

Armstrong added that his office also provides assistance to individual projects to ensure they are on the right track.

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