"Version Control" and the 2012 federal IT budget

By Shawn P. McCarthy

If you've noticed some mixed messages coming out of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) when it comes to annual IT spending by federal agencies, you're not alone. The good news is that the proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget for federal information technology spending is available -- and it looks like a solid piece of IT planning. The bad news (to some) is that the supposed spending "cuts" widely reported in the trade press aren't nearly as large as they might look at first glance. (Which could turn out to be good news for government IT and program managers.)

This is a reflection of the confusing budget times in which we live.

Let me help you sort through some of this conflicting information, leading toward a better understanding of the actual federal IT spending slated for FY 2012.

Here's what we know so far. On February 14 President Obama's proposed United States Federal Budget for fiscal year 2012 was released this week by OMB. The budget itself totals $3.7 trillion and calls for a combination of tax increases and spending decreases, leading toward a plan to cut $1.1 trillion from the national debt by 2022.

The IT portion of that budget is a bit more confounding. As many readers know, agency IT budgets are outlined in annual "Exhibit 53" forms which each agency must submit to OMB. The forms outline various IT programs and projects being managed by each agency and include funding requests for each. Approved projects from the Exhibit 53s become the foundation for each year's proposed federal IT budget.

The Budget We Know

The FY 2012 IT budget lists $79.8 billion in dedicated IT programs and projects. The budget extends across the Defense Department and major civilian agencies. It does not include many types of intelligence spending, nor does not include the U.S. Postal Service.

This new IT budget shows a modest 0.2% increase over estimated FY 2011 spending. But therein lies a large part of the version control problem. As of the end of February the FY 2011 budget still has not been approved by Congress. Therefore, any quoted "budget number" for FY 2011 is rather fluid. That said, since the proposed FY 2011 budget for IT spending was in fact published by OMB last year, and updated last fall, it remains possible to put together an outline of FY 2011 IT spending, and then compare it to the federal FY 2012 IT budget. That document is available as Perspective: IT Spending in the 2012 U.S. Federal Budget — Details by Agency

Through this comparison we can state that the federal IT budget climbed roughly 0.2% between FY 2011 and FY 2012. But, since there's no official budget for the current federal fiscal year, OMB and federal CIO Vivek Kundra instead have been comparing the FY 2012 budget to FY 2010 numbers.

This makes for a better sound bite when promoting budgetary restraint: "Proposed FY 2012 spending is $2 billion lower than the final IT tally for FY 2010." But it's only part of the story.

The Budget We Didn't See

When the FY 2010 budget was first unveiled in mid-2009, proposed spending was slated to be $75.8 billion. So the real story is that the FY 2010 budget crept up, big time, to nearly $81.9 Billion.  To make things more complicated, the FY 2010 spending numbers outlined in the newly released Exhibit 53s only list about $78 billion in actual spending for that year. The difference is probably because some older programs have been cut from the latest versions of the Exhibit 53s, and aren't covered in the latest round-up. But the difference is quite noticeable. So on paper, today, the FY 2012 information technology budget may look like a $2 billion cut over FY 2010. But it's actually quite higher than what FY 2010 was originally slated to be.

Kundra came on board as the Federal CIO in March, 2009. To be fair, the 2010 budget largely was set, and quietly expanded, before Kundra was able to exert much influence on it. For that reason he should be commended on making substantial cuts for FY 2012.

But we could also use some clarification around some of the budget numbers. For example, Exhibit 53 numbers show NASA's IT budget as $1.6 billion, a gain of 1.9% over the last proposed FY 2011 budget.  Yet Kundra said last week that the NASA IT budget is slated to be cut by up to $512 million, or 24% compared to FY 2010. No matter which published version of the FY 2010 budget we look at, NASA's FY 2010 IT budget was never so high that a $512 million cut would bring the budget down to its proposed FY 2012 level.

We asked his office for comment on the budget version issues, outlining the several discrepancies we discovered in an email, but his spokesperson, Moira Mack, didn't address the individual questions. Her emailed response only said "the CIO’s comments were comparing the FY2012 proposal to FY2010."

The real story here is that the Federal CIO has put in place some major policy changes, ranging from increased planning for cloud computing, and plans to reduce the number of federal data centers by 40 % over the next few years. Kundra already is having an impact by reining in spending and reducing the federal IT footprint.

Now, if we can get some clarity on what's happening with the FY 2012 IT budget we can better understand the real numbers. Successful budget control speaks for itself.

Copyright 2011 IDC, all rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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