Information Technology: Additional Executive Review Sessions Needed to Address Troubled Projects
What GAO Found
Since January 2010, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and selected agencies have held multiple TechStat Accountability Sessions (TechStats) on information technology (IT) investments that varied in terms of function, significance, and risk. As of April 2013, OMB reported conducting 79 TechStats, which focused on 55 investments at 23 federal agencies. The four agencies conducted 37 TechStats covering 28 investments. About 70 percent of the OMB- and 76 percent of agency-led TechStats on major investments were considered medium- to high-risk at the time of the TechStat. However, the number of at-risk TechStats held to date is relatively small compared to the current number of medium- and high-risk IT investments. Until OMB and agencies develop plans to address these investments, the investments will likely remain at risk.
The selected agencies are generally conducting TechStats in accordance with OMB guidance. OMB's TechStat guidance includes 15 key requirements, such as when TechStats should be implemented, what participants should be included, and how outcomes should be tracked and reported. DHS implemented all of the TechStat requirements. Commerce, HHS, and Agriculture implemented a majority of the requirements, but each had shortcomings. For example, these agencies did not consistently create memorandums with responsible parties and due dates for action items. Fully implementing OMB's guidance could better position agencies to effectively manage and resolve problems on IT investments.
OMB and selected agencies have tracked and reported positive results from TechStats, with most resulting in improved governance. OMB also reported in 2011 that federal agencies achieved almost $4 billion in life-cycle cost savings as a result of TechStat sessions. However, GAO was unable to validate OMB's reported results because OMB did not provide artifacts showing that it ensured the results were valid. From GAO's selected agencies, three investments had cost implications. Agencies provided supporting documentation for about $22.2 million in cost savings and avoidances. Until OMB obtains and shares information on the methods used to validate reported results, it will be difficult for the results to be independently validated and for OMB to provide assurance to Congress and the public that TechStats are achieving their intended impact.
Why GAO Did This Study
While IT investments have the potential to make organizations more efficient, many federal IT projects experience cost overruns, schedule delays, and performance shortfalls. To help address these shortfalls, OMB established TechStats--face-to-face meetings to terminate or turnaround IT investments that are failing or are not producing results.
GAO was asked to evaluate the implementation of TechStats. GAO's objectives were to (1) identify key characteristics of TechStats held to date; (2) evaluate whether selected agencies are conducting TechStats in accordance with OMB guidance, and (3) analyze the extent to which reported TechStat results are tracked and validated. To do so, GAO selected four agencies--Agriculture, Commerce, HHS, and DHS--because these were the agencies with the highest number of at-risk investments. GAO analyzed OMB and agency documentation, compared agency processes to TechStat guidance, compared efforts to validate reported outcomes to leading practices, and interviewed OMB and agency officials.
GAO is making recommendations to OMB to require agencies to address high-risk investments and to report on how they validated the outcomes. GAO is also making recommendations to selected agencies to address weaknesses in following OMB's TechStat guidance. OMB and Commerce officials generally agreed with GAO's recommendations. Agriculture partially agreed with GAO's assessment; neither it nor HHS commented on the recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Office of Management and Budget||To ensure that TechStat sessions are having the appropriate impact in the oversight of underperforming projects, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) to require agencies to conduct TechStats for each IT investment rated with a moderately high- or high-risk CIO rating on the IT Dashboard, unless there is a clear reason for not doing so.||
The agency generally agreed with the recommendation. In June 2015, OMB issued guidance requiring agencies to hold TechStats on investments that have had a high-risk or red rating for three consecutive months. This new practice will allow agencies to identify and address troubled investments quickly.
|Office of Management and Budget||To ensure that TechStat sessions are having the appropriate impact in the oversight of underperforming projects, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Federal Chief Information Officer to require agencies to report to OMB on efforts to validate the outcomes, cost savings, and cost avoidances resulting from TechStat sessions; this information should be summarized when OMB reports on governmentwide outcomes.||
The agency generally agreed with the recommendation, but does not plan to implement it. In April 2017, OMB stated agencies report TechStat outcomes and cost savings via OMB's Integrated Data Collection. Rather than have the agencies report on efforts to validate those numbers, it relies on the agency CIOs to validate their data before submitting it. The agency has no plans to change this practice.
|Office of Management and Budget||To ensure that TechStat sessions are having the appropriate impact in the oversight of underperforming projects, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should direct the Federal Chief Information Officer to direct the Federal CIO Council to track the outcome of TechStat sessions and to support OMB's efforts to validate the resulting cost savings it reports to Congress.||
The agency generally agreed with the recommendation, but does not plan to implement it. In April 2017, OMB stated that agency CIOs are responsible for tracking the outcomes of their respective TechStats and validating the results, and that the CIO Council does not do this. OMB has no plans to direct the CIO Council to track or validate Techstat results.
|Department of Health and Human Services||The Secretary of Health and Human Services should establish a plan and schedule for addressing each IT investment rated with a moderately high- or high-risk CIO rating on the IT Dashboard; such a plan could include conducting a TechStat session.||
At the time of the report, the agency had no comment on the recommendation. As a part of its guidance on implementing FITARA, OMB now requires a TechStat be held on any IT investment with a moderately high- or high-risk (red) CIO rating for 3 or more consecutive months. As of March 2016, HHS had 4 such high-risk investments and had held a TechStat on each of those investments. Holding TechStats on continually high-risk investments will allow HHS to have better insight into the problems the investments are facing and ability to intervene to turn around or terminate these investments.
|Department of Health and Human Services||The Secretary of Health and Human Services should address the weaknesses in agency- and bureau-led TechStat processes and management outlined in this report.||
At the time of our review, we identified several weaknesses in the agency's TechStat processes and management, including creating TechStat memorandums, and ensuring that TechStat action items are actively managed and monitored. As of August 2017, HHS demonstrated that it had taken steps to address the weaknesses in its TechStat processes and management. Specifically, HHS demonstrated that it was creating TechStat memorandums and actively managing and monitoring TechStat action items. Properly documenting TechStats and following up on their action items will better position HHS to realize the benefits of the TechStat initiative, including strengthening overall IT governance and oversight, and proactively identifying and resolving problems before investments experience delays or cost overruns.
|Department of Agriculture||The Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce should address the weaknesses in agency- and bureau-led TechStat processes and management outlined in this report.||
The agency partially agreed with our assessment of the agency's TechStat process, and in April 2018 provided evidence that it had taken several steps to address the weaknesses we identified in its TechStat program. For example, USDA required TechStats to be held on non-major investments, included the TechStat model within its capital planning and investment control procedures, and included action steps, deadlines, and responsibilities in its TechStat memos. Correcting these weaknesses will better position USDA to realize the benefits of the TechStat initiative, including strengthening overall IT governance and oversight, and proactively identifying and resolving problems before investments experience delays or cost overruns.
|Department of Commerce||The Secretaries of Agriculture and Commerce should address the weaknesses in agency- and bureau-led TechStat processes and management outlined in this report.||
The agency agreed with the recommendation. In August 2013, the Department of Commerce provided evidence that it had addressed the weaknesses in its TechStat processes and management. Specifically, the department's TechStat memorandums now include a specific point of contact named and a specific due date for completion. Fully implementing the Office of Management and Budget's guidance on performing TechStats will better position the department to realize the full benefits of the TechStat initiative.