IT at the core of many GAO oversight areas

Watchdog agency produces a list of hot topics for new Congress to watch

Congress, GAO ready for a closer look

House Government Reform Committee

As incoming chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) is expected to make waste, fraud and abuse in federal contracting a high priority. His plans include:

  • Legislation to limit non-competitive contracts and prevent unjustified award fees, and strengthen oversight by dedicating a percentage of procurement budget to oversight.

Outgoing chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who closely followed much of GAO's work, expects to continue oversight of issues, including:
  • House-passed data breach legislation

  • The Federal Information Security Management Act

  • Agency information sharing

  • Projects on the management watch list and GAO's high-risk list

  • The Networx and Alliant acquisitions.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee
As chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) will focus on:
  • Federal contracting

  • IT security and data privacy

  • Holding agencies accountable for providing effective and efficient services

  • Providing more resources to first responders.

Based on congressional request or mandates, GAO is continuing or currently
reviewing:
  • IT security assessment at DHS and the Veterans Affairs Department, FBI, the IRS, Securities and Exchange Commission, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

  • Governmentwide policies and practices at agencies for protecting personal data

  • IRS Business Systems Modernization and its fiscal 2007 spending plan (mandated)

  • DHS' U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program (mandated)

  • Census' $3 billion in IT acquisitions

  • FAA modernization acquisitions and cybercritical infrastructure protection.

We've been able to identify and distill a number of issues that we think the Congress ought to focus on in the acquisition area.' Bill Woods, GAO

The Government Accountability Office's recent report to Congress on the top concerns facing government recommends more oversight of federal IT management than might be apparent at first glance.

The oversight areas in comptroller general David Walker's recently issued report run the gamut of governmentwide contracting, identity theft, human capital, management reform and specific agency programs. And each area relies heavily on IT components, said David Powner, director of GAO IT management issues.

'Although there are only a handful of specific IT items here ... there are many IT areas sprinkled throughout,' he said.

On reducing the tax gap, for example, GAO will drill down into the program and look at electronic filing and some of IRS' key systems, such as Filing and Payment Compliance, that are tied both to modernization and to reducing the tax gap.

Future challenges

GAO recently targeted 36 areas for the next Congress to address, including areas requiring near-term oversight, policies and programs that need fundamental reform, and governance issues to steer the federal government through future challenges.

This is the first time GAO has assembled a suggested-oversight list, agency spokesman Paul Anderson said.

The list builds on GAO's 21st Century Challenges assessment at the beginning of the 109th Congress in February 2005 and its high-risk series produced every two years, the next update of which is due in January.

GAO will examine IT management issues such as investment control processes and enterprise architecture maturity even in what are not obvious IT programs.

'Our work ... is grounded in a lot of key processes in the Clinger-Cohen framework and a lot of best practices, which occur in the private sector also,' Powner said.

'We'll look at executive-level oversight and ownership, investment management processes, holding the appropriate board meetings and governance structures, and how consistent ... an acquisition [is] with the current enterprise architecture,' he said.

Within specific program office areas such as requirements management, GAO will dig deeper and determine if the requirements are right upfront and if they are managed through the acquisitions cycle. Other common process areas are risk management and contractor oversight.

'Lately, we've measured success through agencies' use of earned-value techniques to measure cost, schedule and technical performance,' Powner said.

Issues to consider

The suggested areas are topics for which GAO has ongoing oversight, has received requests from congressional committees for review or expects to receive such requests.

The recommendations are an indication, as Congress puts together its agenda, 'that these are some of the issues that we think that they might want to consider,' said Bill Woods, director of GAO acquisition and sourcing management.

Contracting and acquisition are examples of issues that are relevant regardless of congressional leadership, he said.

'We've been doing reviews of contracting for many years and, based on all of that body of work and our high-risk series, we've been able to identify and distill a number of issues that we think the Congress ought to focus on in the acquisition area,' Woods added.

GAO also reviews some of the topics because statutes, such as the CFO Act or Clinger-Cohen, mandate it. GAO's high-risk series also recommends some agency programs for continued GAO oversight.

For example, GAO regularly evaluates IRS' Business Systems Modernization. The next report, due in February, will deal with its fiscal 2007 spending plan, Powner said.

Expenditure for SBINet

In another instance, the Homeland Security Department appropriations bill requires GAO to examine the expenditure plan for SBINet, DHS' complex border control technology project expected to cost $7.6 billion.

GAO published its list shortly after the mid-term elections. At the same time, new Democratic leaders such as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) promised to investigate large contracts. The result appears to indicate heightened scrutiny of problematic federal programs.

'Whether there is more oversight or not in a given area will depend on the new Congress' structure and what their focus will be in the technology arena,' Powner said.

Government observers' reactions to GAO's list and Democratic plans to look at contracts more closely are mixed.

Jennifer Porter Gore, a spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington nonprofit group that advocates increased accountability for federal spending, wants GAO to look at more specifics about contracts and IT management. GAO should examine, for example, whether agencies can quantify results and track exactly where the money went, she said. 'Congress is going to have to ask the right questions and request the right investigations.' Industry leaders see the appearance of more oversight as a reflection of political scenarios coming together, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president at the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. Those scenarios concern large, problematic contracts for rebuilding Iraq and responding to Hurricane Katrina, and the fact that the Democrats have assumed leadership.

'Because IT is part of all government programs, there's really been increasing scrutiny every year,' she said.

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