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New CIO Talks Federal IT Reform: Making FITARA Stick is Job No. 1

Federal CIO Tony Scott

Federal CIO Tony Scott // Bethesda AFCEA

Tony Scott, the newly appointed federal chief information officer, says his first six weeks on the job have been “consumed” with mapping out guidelines for making sure agencies follow the letter and spirit of federal IT overhaul legislation that went on the books late last year.

The Office of Management and Budget has been working over the last several months to figure out how to make sure the reforms envisioned by the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act actually stick.

“It's important that we get that right,” Scott told reporters after a speech Tuesday before the Data Transparency Coalition in some of his first public remarks since being named federal CIO. “You know, there's some agencies that don't like [FITARA] very much. And those are the ones that probably need the most change.”

Since Scott joined the administration last month, he’s been on a whirlwind tour, meeting CIOs and other agency officials, congressional backers of the law and outside groups to get their take on implementing IT reform.

The heart of the new law gives agency CIOs greater power over their agency’s IT purse strings. The law mandates CIOs have final sign-off on their annual IT budgets and also bars agencies from signing any IT contracts or reprogramming IT funds without the CIO’s approval.  

Scott, a former CIO at Silicon Valley based-VMware, Disney and Microsoft, said agency CIOs will need to use their new powers wisely.

"We call it CIO authorities, but what it really is, is CIO engagement and collaboration with the leadership team in those agencies -- which hasn't happened in all cases,” Scott said. "If you get the right folks engaged, and that's really what FITARA's all about, you can increase your chances of success by a huge percent."

In other words, command-and-control-style IT leadership is on its way out, he said.

That’s a view shared by agency-level CIOs.

Since FITARA became law last December, Richard McKinney, the Transportation Department CIO, said he’s been having more productive talks with his agency’s financial and budget officials.

"I feel there's a renewed sense of, 'Hey, we're all in this together. We all own a piece of this,' McKinney said Tuesday at an AFCEA Bethesda breakfast on the 2016 federal IT budget.

FITARA “gets us out of our offices, out of our cubicles, and out of wherever we've been hiding for the last I-don't-know-how-many years and into a place where we can actually talk to each other and figure out what is going to benefit the department as a whole -- not my own individual agency,” said Joyce Hunter, acting CIO of the Agriculture Department, which houses some 29 subagencies. “It's not 'mine, mine, mine' anymore.”

Still, outside the public spotlight, expanding the CIO role hasn’t been entirely a “Kumbaya” moment.

Some agency chief financial officers have balked at CIOs being given greater authority over IT budgeting, which has traditionally been the purview of the CFO’s office, according to a recent Federal News Radio report. Past turf wars marred the implementation of the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which first mandated and formalized the CIO role in the federal government.

As for Scott, his work on the FITARA guidelines has offered a crash course in learning the inner works of the federal government, much of it unfamiliar to him before he took on the role, the former corporate CIO said.

“Nobody here, so far I have found, is shy or introverted about expressing their feelings, or telling you what’s wrong or how to fix it,” he said.

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