- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 29, 2014

If you have a home computer and know what software programs are loaded onto it, you’re already far ahead of some parts of the federal government.

That’s because the government’s multibillion-dollar information-technology infrastructure is fractured and disorganized, according to a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office. The government, Congress’ top watchdog concluded, has trouble keeping straight software it actually owns.

“The federal government procures thousands of software-licenses agreements annually, and therefore, effectively managing them is critical,” the investigative office said.

The GAO doesn’t even know how much money is on the line because agencies don’t have comprehensive records of what software they’ve purchased and what they’re using. But the potential for waste is high: The government plans to spend $82 billion on IT products and services in the current fiscal year.

And when a single federal agency took the time to organize and consolidate its software usage in 2012, officials reported saving $181 million in their budget.

That’s why the government’s IT infrastructure wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by The Washington Times to call out examples of wasteful fiscal spending or poor oversight dealing with taxpayers’ money.

Investigators focused special criticism on the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, which is often supposed to lead on managing other agencies. OMB has started a program called PortfolioStat, intended to manage IT software, but GAO auditors said it is “not enough to guide the agencies in developing comprehensive licensing-management policies.”

OMB officials argued that there are already plenty of policies and directives in place to help departments manage their software.

“Driving efficiency, especially in commodity IT, is a tremendously important element of effectively managing IT,” the office said in response to the report. “The necessary first step in driving that efficiency is to have visibility into what is to be managed.”

“Agencies now have the tools to identify when there is underutilization of software and are better able to recapture those underutilized licenses to deploy them to people who need them,” the OMB said.

Investigators, however, still aren’t satisfied, and said few federal agencies are scrutinizing their software usage carefully enough. Some are paying for programs they never use, while others are buying programs that are likely just duplicating capabilities of existing software. Still others are so disorganized they haven’t bought software they need, or pay excessive fees because they’re not following a licensing agreement.

Only two agencies have developed comprehensive plans to organize, oversee and manage all their software and purchases: the departments of Labor and Homeland Security.

The other 22 major U.S. agencies have mostly decentralized software planning, leading to a piecemeal and highly inefficient purchase and use, investigators said.

In fact, most departments don’t even know what software they’re using most often, the GAO said, noting that “the most widely used applications across the federal government cannot be accurately determined.”

When agencies do take the time to consolidate their software, there have been noticeable savings. In 2012, the Homeland Security Department evaluated what software it needed and worked to cut deals with software vendors. It saved the agency an estimated $181 million.

Likewise, NASA officials reported that they had combined and reworked contracts with Cisco and Microsoft that saved the agency some $33 million.

And through the OMB’s PortfolioStat endeavor, the Commerce Department was able to save $1 million by taking advantage of lower negotiated prices with software companies.

But agencies also are not providing training to their employees on how to handle software purchases, causing the GAO to worry that the mistakes may be repeated in the future.

“Without improved policies and oversight, agencies will likely miss opportunities for significant savings across the federal government,” investigators concluded.

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