Major NIH Computer System:

Poor Management Resulted in Unmet Scientists' Needs and Wasted Millions

IMTEC-92-5: Published: Nov 4, 1991. Publicly Released: Jan 10, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed how effectively the National Institutes of Health (NIH) managed the acquisition process leading to its 1988 contract for a major computer system.

GAO found that: (1) the NIH information resources management (IRM) organization, which was established to oversee and coordinate IRM functions, did not assert leadership or exercise its authority over the acquisition; (2) since the IRM Council did not address this major computer contract in its strategic plans, the computer center adopted an acquisition approach that did not consider whether the contract would meet its scientists' changing needs; (3) the NIH computer center did not collect and analyze data to identify scientific users' needs; (4) after NIH awarded the contract, two of its committees independently determined that the contract did not effectively meet the NIH scientific community's needs; (5) NIH overestimated the capacity requirements for the contract, and consequently NIH acquired more computer capacity than it needed and upgraded its already underutilized computers; (6) NIH has wasted over $16 million in equipment leasing costs on the computers; (7) NIH took such steps to promote competition for the computer contract as soliciting industry comments on its draft solicitation, offering up to $1 million to offerors who successfully completed a required benchmark, and extending its bid acceptance period specifically at the request of a potential bidder; and (8) despite those efforts, NIH was unsuccessful in attracting more than one vendor.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NIH's top IRM management, the IRM Council, has approved, starting with fiscal year 1994 planning activities, an IRM strategic planning process and an accompanying methodology for identifying NIH information requirements. The planning process is under the direction of the Associate Director for IRM (NIH's Senior Official) and will be based upon: (1) formal user input of anticipated information needs; and (2) proposals for solutions to those needs by NIH's information providers. NIH's Office of IRM will coordinate need input from: (1) the organizational groupings of NIH, the institutes, centers, and divisions; and (2) three committees representing types of individual users--one for scientists employed at NIH; one for scientists outside NIH, but working on NIH research projects; and one for NIH's administrative staff. Input from these sources will be organized by the Senior Official and presented to NIH's information providers for solution alternatives.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should require the Director, NIH, to require the NIH senior IRM official to take the lead role in future major system acquisitions by initiating activities that include developing a strategic plan that addresses the role of information technology in supporting the NIH mission of conducting biomedical research. This strategy should include identifying and addressing changes in scientific computing. Also, it should address how the NIH systems should be configured to most effectively complement each other in meeting diverse NIH automation needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NIH has fully acknowledged the need for competition in its acquisition strategy for the new procurement to replace the current IBM mainframe system in DCRT's computer center; NIH will not use the total system approach. Instead, NIH plans to focus on maximizing competition and flexibility and obtaining good prices. Requirements analysis begins in April 1993 with contract award in August 1996.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should require the Director, NIH, to determine whether the total system approach is necessary to meet actual NIH needs in future acquisitions. This determination should be based on analysis that weighs the advantage of facilitating computer center management against the disadvantage of limiting competition.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based on DCRT's capacity assessment of the IBM computer system, NIH has concluded that three IBM 3090 mainframes can currently handle the production, testing, and backup workloads. NIH placed the three-mainframe configuration in operation in October 1992 and was able to partition one of the three mainframes to support production as well as backup, testing and development.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should require the Director, NIH, to use the capacity management program to identify and eliminate excess capacity and unnecessary equipment. The assessment should also determine if the current approach of dedicating a full-sized computer to backup, testing, and development is necessary. At a minimum, adjustments should include the elimination of one of the contractor's 3090 computers from the NIH system, in addition to the computer NIH eliminated in July 1991.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NIH implemented a capacity management program in DCRT by providing a capacity management staff, purchasing capacity modeling software, and training staff with it. A completed capacity assessment of DCRT's IBM computer system was conducted and reported to NIH's IRM Council. The Director, NIH, corrected the weakness reported under the Federal Managers' Financial Integrity Act.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should require the Director, NIH, to improve NIH computer operations by implementing a capacity management program that includes frequent analysis and modelling of all computers in the computer system using historic and projected data. Until an effective program is implemented, the Director, NIH, should report the lack of effective capacity management as a material weakness under the Federal Managers' Financial Integrity Act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The NIH Senior Official initiated two broadly-based activities to ensure that future acquisitions adequately support the NIH mission. NIH's Office of IRM will coordinate input from: (1) the organizational groupings of NIH, the institutes, centers, and divisions; and (2) three committees representing types of individual users--scientists employed at NIH, scientists outside NIH, but working on NIH research projects, and NIH's administrative staff. Input from these sources will be organized and presented to NIH's information providers for solution alternatives. The cases where the NIH providers could not supply the needed information would form the basis for contract specifications. NIH will manage the acquisition process by building a staff capability in OIRM to put in place an integrated approach to information technology acquisition. Staff will analyze and assess proposed acquisitions prior to approval to ensure that the acquisition meets user needs and supports the NIH mission.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should require the Director, NIH, to require the NIH senior IRM official to take the lead role in future major system acquisitions by initiating activities that include ensuring that future acquisitions adequately support the NIH mission. As part of this effort, NIH should solicit data on scientists' needs in identifying the requirements that form the basis for contract specifications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

 

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