Editorial

Money is only part of IT

Thomas R. Temin

The only thing worse than not trying something ambitious is trying something ambitious without enough money.

Thanks mainly to the government's year 2000 success, there is a lot of talk around Washington about agencies' newfound credibility in handling large-scale information technology projects. Even so, many new and existing programs seem to get too little funding to ensure success.

For example, after nearly killing off the Customs Service's Automated Commercial Environment project, Congress and the agency somehow scraped together $3 million to keep an ACE pilot alive. And ACE is a big, long-term project that most lawmakers and industry leaders agree is important to the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, Customs must make do with an aging and deteriorating system on which literally trillions of dollars of import-export transactions depend.

There's another example at the Agriculture Department. The House and Senate finally agreed on a bill that requires USDA to make services available to farmers electronically. Again, it's a worthy idea that fits with the current thinking on electronic government. But the department is supposed to do this with $3 million in fiscal 2001 and $2 million each year thereafter. To be sure, other agencies have had to do more with less. But to build a commercial-scale, online filing environment is going to cost a lot more than what Congress has guaranteed for the project.

Then there's NASA. The post-mortem investigations of its Mars mission failures found that the agency didn't have enough people to properly test software, much less manage things.

The problem, of course, is that for every modernization or e-filing project, there is a multimillion-dollar disappointment such as the Bureau of Land Management's records management system [GCN, April 3, Page 1]. So far, the 2000 successes haven't offset a decade of less-than-stellar IT initiatives.

Merely throwing money at a problem rarely works. But determining appropriate funding is crucial. What's needed in governmental IT is not simply more dollars, but a better plan of attack on initiatives that Congress and agencies agree are important.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

E-mail: editor@gcn.com

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