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Agencies Get IT Reform Marching Orders, but Don't Expect Congress To Sit Idle

House Oversight Committee member Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va.

House Oversight Committee member Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The White House on Wednesday released new rules for pumping up the authority of agency chief information officers in a bid to better manage the $80 billion spent each year on federal IT.

The Office of Management and Budget is holding agencies’ feet to the fire to fully implement the new CIO job responsibilities, but the Government Accountability Office is also cautioning Congress not to let oversight of the process languish.

The release of the final guidelines coincided with testimony by U.S. CIO Tony Scott and other federal officials at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing about the implementation of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, known as FITARA.

The “backbone” of the new rules, Scott testified, is the setting out of a “common baseline” of roles and responsibilities for agency CIOs. FITARA grants CIOs more authority over IT budgets and spending at their agencies, but actually making that edict carry over to agency organization charts consumes much of the new guidance.

By August, agencies are required to complete a self-assessment of how well their CIOs currently meet those targets as well as how they plan to bridge any gaps they turn up. Agencies will be required to publicly post their self-assessments on their websites. By the end of 2016, agencies are required to have fully rolled out the new authorities for their CIOs.

Scott, who’s been the government’s top CIO since February, said despite IT reforms undertaken by the administration over the past few years, “major changes are needed to achieve the full potential of IT in the federal government,” and that FITARA is the key base on which further changes can be built.

"A core part of my team's work will be to build this new foundation by implementing FITARA in a way that's workable and consistent,” he testified.

GAO: Don’t Leave it up to the Agencies

Dave Powner, GAO’s director of IT management issues, said Congress needs to stay involved in the process, too.

“History tells us that if you leave it up to the administration -- OMB and the agencies -- it doesn't work as well,” Powner said of past efforts to transform the way the government budgets for and spend IT.

In February, GAO deemed IT acquisition a “high-risk” area in government, citing large projects that fall behind schedule, balloon over budget or fail altogether when they’re finally switched on.

Agencies have been slow to address the watchdog’s recommendations, many of which stem from “OMB's own initiatives that haven't been implemented to completion,” Powner testified.

For example, Powner pointed to the TechStat sessions, face-to-face meetings between OMB and agency officials initiated in 2010 to help turn around or terminate running-off-the-rails IT projects.

"There were about 50-some projects, 70-some meetings and there were a lot of these projects that were halted, de-scoped, corrected and there was great progress to the tune that OMB says $3 billion was saved,” Powner testified.

However, OMB hasn’t conducted any TechStat reviews since March 2013 -- instead leaving it up to agencies to handle internally -- and hasn’t listed any savings from TechStat sessions in its reporting to Congress since June 2012, according to GAO.

“We need to go back to looking at these projects, because within agencies there's a reluctance to stop a project,” Powner testified.

Too Early for Carve-Outs, Lawmaker Says

Even before the final guidelines were committed to paper, some agencies were reportedly seeking workarounds.

The Project on Government Oversight reported last month the Energy Department’s 17 semi-autonomous National Laboratories wanted an exemption to the CIO-boosting FITARA law through an amendment to a Senate appropriations bill, citing research and development work -- such as work on nuclear deterrence -- that falls outside the scope of a traditional CIO’s expertise.

But lawmakers and administration officials aren’t buying it.

"My view is, gee, we haven't learned how to walk yet; we're just getting to guidelines of implementation,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., the co-author of the law. “It's awfully premature to be deciding we need to be carved out."

Anne Rung, the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said the administration would work with agencies to address their concerns about implementing the new authorities.

“OMB has formally stated that they find the proposal to carve out the Department of Energy labs highly problematic,” she testified. “And it's our viewpoint that FITARA is a tremendous management tool for the agencies, and we are not keen on carving out the Department of Energy labs."

Connolly said agencies “seeking legislative redress before we’ve even implemented the bill” are “giving chutzpah a whole new dimension of meaning.” He added, "it's not an adversarial bill, and let's give it some time to marinate.”

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