OMB tries to sell Congress on management watch list

Rep. Tom Davis criticized OMB for not getting projects fixed quickly enough.

Henrik G. de Gyor

'We work with agencies and offer suggestions, but the agencies must do the hard work to take the corrective actions,' OMB's Karen Evans said.

Rachael Golden

While lawmakers, the Government Accountability Office and the administration debate how best to manage at-risk IT projects, Hal Bell has made up his mind.

Administration officials have said Bell's experience is proof that the Office of Management and Budget's management watch list is working, and Bell agrees.

'Being put on a watch list is never a good thing for programs, but you will receive management attention that you may not normally get,' he said. 'It focuses the agency on the program and the head of the agency gets involved very quickly to make sure the program's issues get addressed.'

In 2004, Bell's program, the Federal Aviation Administration's Wide Area Augmentation System program, joined 770 others on the at-risk list. WAAS, which provides corrections to the Defense Department's Global Positioning System for aviation purposes, made the list because its cost, schedule and performance metrics were outdated.

OMB went even further and worked with Congress to place a provision in FAA's appropriations bill that withheld about $100 million if the agency didn't improve its business case.

In a matter of months, Bell updated his metrics, helping get WAAS off the list and back on track. And in fiscal 2005, no FAA programs were among the 342 IT projects on the management watch list when the president sent his budget request to Congress in February.

Debate over list

The management of the IT programs on the at-risk list was the center of a debate late last month before the House Government Reform Committee.

GAO staffers and committee chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) criticized OMB for not keeping an aggregate watch list, saying Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT, was missing an opportunity to make sure projects were fixed in a timely manner.

'OMB had not developed a structured, consistent process for deciding how to follow up on corrective actions,' said David Powner, GAO's director for IT management issues. 'Because it did not consistently require or monitor follow-up activities, OMB did not know whether project risks that it identified ... were being managed effectively, potentially leaving resources at risk of being committed to poorly planned and managed projects.'

Davis and other committee members questioned the effectiveness of OMB's system when expensive projects such as the FBI's Trilogy and Veterans Affairs Department's CoreFLS continue to fail.

But Evans told lawmakers that agencies are responsible for remediating their projects, and OMB is there to offer support and oversight.

'We work with agencies and offer suggestions, but the agencies must do the hard work to take the corrective actions,' she told lawmakers. 'We follow up with agencies throughout the lifecycle of a project.'

Evans acknowledged there is no aggregate list, but told lawmakers that each OMB budget officer keeps a list of their agencies' at-risk projects. They give Evans quarterly updates on project progress.

In 2005, Evans said, the number of projects on the list dropped from 342 to 248.

Even as OMB and lawmakers discuss the merits of an aggregate list, Evans said her office will issue guidance in the next few weeks detailing what it means for a project to be at risk.

She added the guidance will be for those projects whose problems need to be addressed quarterly through the President's Management Agenda scorecard.

OMB's directive for the first time will clarify high-risk projects. In the past, the administration put projects on the management watch list after their business cases received a score of three out of five or lower, or if they had cybersecurity problems.

'The committee has had follow-up discussions with OMB about this important tool and will continue to work with them to ensure that that our $65 billion IT investment is directed in the most effective and efficient way possible,' said Drew Crockett, spokesman for the committee. 'Chairman Davis is optimistic that OMB, working with every federal agency and with the committee, will continue to improve the watch list process and address weaknesses.'

Guidance and an aggregate list might be helpful, but OMB's ability to look through the entire IT portfolio is the real issue, said Mark Forman, former OMB administrator for IT and e-government and now executive vice president at Cassatt Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif.

'OMB cannot micromanage each project,' he said. 'CIOs must operate at the portfolio level and OMB can look for weaknesses across all agencies or within agencies.'

Quick response

Forman, who began the at-risk list in 2002, said holding back funding until problems are fixed is the best way to get agencies' attention.

Evans said OMB is using this tool; in 2004, the White House held funding back from five agencies for poor business cases.

FAA's Bell agreed that the possibility of losing funding prompted quick improvements.

'The program had been in trouble for a long time,' Bell said. 'Our inspector general had been investigating the program, and we had been off schedule and over budget for a long time, but making the watch list solidified the need to fix those issues.'

Bell said the Transportation Department set up a central point of contact to communicate with OMB, and budget analysts provided timely and helpful answers to questions that arose during the business case revision.

'To OMB's credit, they were not trying to fail us,' Bell said. 'They generally worked with us to make sure we would get the business case explained and our funding restored.'

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