The feds' data center debacle makes HealthCare.gov look good

A government effort to reduce its data centers had the opposite effect, and no heads rolled. Time is running out to fix federal IT

Suppose you were running a private IT project that was supposed to consolidate your company's data centers. Three years after you started, the results looked like this: Instead of shrinking, the number of expensive data centers had tripled. Chances are you'd be fired.

That expansion is exactly what's happening in the federal government. Three years after the enactment of the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI), which was supposed to save billions of dollars by doing what its name implies, the number of federal data centers has increased by about 226 percent, ballooning from 2,094 in 2010 to 6,836 in 2013, according to testimony by the Government Accountability Office, the independent federal auditing agency.

[ Eric Knorr shares the inside scoop on how HealthCare.gov is getting fixed. | For quick, smart takes on the news you'll be talking about, check out InfoWorld TechBrief -- subscribe today. ]

But the man in charge, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel still has his job. "Is VanRoekel asleep at the switch -- or did he expire already?" Steve O'Keeffe, a longtime IT pro and founder of MeriTalk, wrote in a blistering and attention-getting blog post this week.

O'Keeffe, whose organization is essentially an online community of people around the federal IT structure, is particularly irked by the status of the federal IT dashboard, which is supposed to give the public the ability to view details of federal information technology IT investments online and to track their progress over time. It turns out that the dashboard hasn't been updated for 15 of the last 24 months, according to a report by the GAO.

"Here's the irony: If there were [for example] a dashboard on OMB [the White House's Office of Management and Budget], clearly it would all be red -- presuming it was updated. The takeaway for agencies is to do what you like -- there's no guidance and there are no repercussions," says O'Keeffe.

How many data centers are there?
To be fair, the sharp increase in the number of data centers may be somewhat misleading. That's because the definition of data centers was expanded to include server rooms and closets that in some cases are smaller than 100 square feet; thus, it's not clear how many of the thousands of new data centers are actually data centers, writes John Foley, a former technology editor now working for Oracle.

It's also important to recognize that VanRoekel has a lot of responsibility and not much power. O'Keeffe, who was much less acerbic when he and I talked than when he wrote, acknowledges that. "Maybe we need a federal CIO with real power. It's a tough job, and having accountability with no power is no fun," he says.

Even so, something is really wrong in government IT management, and it goes beyond the alleged failings of the man O'Keeffe dismisses as "Rip VanRoekel." (I have not yet been able to reach VanRoekel; if I do, I'll update this post.)

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