Government IT projects: Billions at risk

New Congressional testimony by the General Accountability Office (GAO) reports that "352 [US federal government] projects totaling about $23.4 billion -- were poorly planned." Find out what steps federal agencies are recommended to take to improve oversight on high-risk projects.

This is a guest post from Michael Krigsman of TechRepublic's sister site ZDNet. You can follow Michael on his ZDNet blog IT Project Failures, or subscribe to the RSS feed.

New Congressional testimony by the General Accountability Office (GAO) reports that "352 [US federal government] projects totaling about $23.4 billion -- were poorly planned."

The report, which is titled, Information Technology: Management and Oversight of Projects Totaling Billions of Dollars Need Attention, adds:

In our analysis of the high-risk projects in June 2008, we found that of the 472 IT projects that were categorized as high risk, at least 87 had performance shortfalls-collectively totaling about $4.8 billion in funding requested for fiscal year 2009. Agencies reported cost and schedule variances that exceeded 10 percent as the most common shortfall.

These are striking numbers, even for the most jaded of project failure observers.

The testimony recommends that federal agencies take a number of steps to improve oversight on high-risk projects. These steps include:

  • 1. Publicly disclosing the deficiencies of projects on the Management Watch List;
  • 2. Using the list as the basis for selecting projects for follow-up and for tracking follow-up activities (including developing specific criteria for prioritizing the IT projects included on the list, taking into consideration such factors as their relative potential financial and program benefits, as well as potential risks);
  • 3. Analyzing the prioritized list to develop government-wide and agency assessments of the progress and risks of IT investments, identifying opportunities for continued improvement; and
  • 4. Reporting to Congress on progress made in addressing risks of major IT investments and management areas needing attention.

Federal overseers have started initiatives intended to control spiraling waste on government IT projects, including new draft legislation introduced into the Senate.

Although not perfect, these initiatives are definitely a step in the right direction. On the other hand, the testimony concludes with a comment implying gaps and lack of clarity around oversight strategy and policy control between the GAO and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). If the watchdogs aren't on the same page, then they will not be effective in preventing IT waste.

[Thanks to Kim Nash from CIO Magazine for referring me to this document.]


I'm about to complete my MS in IT Proj. Mgmt., and reading this, I can't say I was the least bit surprised. In just about every single course I've taken, the case studies of 'how not to do things' have been from the government sector. The lone exception I can recall off the top of my head was the Waste Management-SAP fiasco. Granted, there is more information available on government failures than there are in the private sector (who wants to admit to a mistake, after all); but still, not exactly awe inspiring management of our money on the part of the government.


Play to Pay is the normal way of business in my state. It is deaply rooted in the culture of state government and municipals watch and learn, then apply the method. Washington is feeding the frenzy.


Government projects always come in way off schedule due to unrealistic dealdlines and their requirements for documentation. It takes a strong leader to continually remind government agencies that their requests are out of scope and will delay the project.


...I am sure that they will do much better with running the banks, mortgage industry, health care, GM, Chrysler, energy, education, Social Security...

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