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Issa proposes legislation to reboot federal IT

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This story was updated to include a comment from Rep. Gerry Connolly.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is floating proposed legislation that would drastically reform the way federal technology is purchased, including by granting agency chief information officers authority over their information technology budgets.

CIOs have long sought budget authority as a means to control IT spending but, so far, only Veterans Affairs Department Chief Information Officer Roger Baker has such authority.

If approved, the draft legislation would be the most significant amendment to the federal technology landscape since the 1996 Clinger Cohen Act, which created agency CIOs, and the 2002 E-Government Act.

In an op-ed published on Nextgov, Issa described those previous acts of Congress as worthwhile reforms that had nevertheless failed to stem inefficiency, duplication and waste in government.

“At a time we are facing record deficits and our national debt has exceeded [our gross domestic product], it has never been more important for government IT acquisition to maximize the American taxpayer’s return on investment, reduce operational risk and provide value to citizens,” Issa wrote. “Yet, because of the antiquated way the government defines its requirements and acquires IT, we are wasting billions of taxpayer dollars each year on failed programs.”

Issa is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees much of the government’s technology spending. He has gathered feedback on the proposed legislation for the past several months from industry IT leaders and plans to gather more feedback before formally proposing the Federal Information Technology Reform Act to Congress. A committee official said the chairman has no timeline for introducing the bill.  

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees federal technology policy, said, “I have advocated for the chairman to focus on substantive IT policy issues. Today's discussion draft appears to represent a workable framework that we can build on, and I hope it signals a new willingness by the committee to finally address important technology modernization and reform initiatives."

The proposed legislation calls for the creation of a Commodity IT Acquisition Center tasked with overseeing large, governmentwide IT contracts. Agencies would be required to consult with the center regarding most acquisitions over $500 million and the center would “establish guidelines that, to the maximum extent possible, eliminate inconsistent practices among executive agencies and ensure uniformity and consistency in acquisition processes for commodity IT across the federal government.”

The acquisition center would not be independent but would be housed within a federal agency that has sufficient acquisition expertise. The Office of Management and Budget director would be responsible for initially picking that agency and for reviewing and perhaps moving it every five years, according to the legislation.

The center would be funded by collecting 5 percent of fees agencies currently receive for managing several types of governmentwide contracts.

Issa’s bill would also create agency-based Assisted Acquisition Centers of Excellence to develop expertise and best practices in particular technology purchasing categories. The agencies would use that expertise to aid other agencies including by sometimes purchasing technology for them, the legislation said.

The location of those centers would be reviewed every two years and the centers could be moved if they weren’t meeting expectations or if the OMB director thought they’d be better placed elsewhere.

Issa refers to these as “go-to” centers for complex acquisitions.

“If the Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services departments deal with healthcare IT procurement on a regular basis, why should other agencies not benefit from their expertise?” he said. “These [centers] would centralize the knowledge of specialists mitigating the critical shortage of skilled federal IT acquisition staff.”

The bill also would put the power of legislation behind numerous initiatives already being pursued by federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel’s office, such as consolidating federal data centers, shifting more of the government’s technology footprint to more nimble cloud computing and cutting and consolidating duplicative federal websites.

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