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Federal CIO Wants New Policy for Refreshing Aging Federal IT Systems

Federal CIO Tony Scott

Federal CIO Tony Scott // Susan Walsh/AP

Last week, the White House issued tough new guidance limiting contracts for laptops and desktops to a handful of governmentwide acquisition vehicles, seeking to tame a proliferation of one-off commodity IT purchases and leverage the federal government’s buying power.

It’s the first in a new series of moves federal Chief Information Officer Tony Scott says his office is cooking up to rethink the way the government buys and manages IT.

"What we're trying to do at the end of the day is bring the federal government into modern practice in terms of procurement,” he said Tuesday at an event in Washington, D.C., on IT procurement hosted by FCW.

Scott’s office is now preparing to release a major rewrite of government IT policy, the so-called Office of Management Budget Circular A-130, which could spell even more far-reaching changes.

A “core, fundamental problem” in the federal government is the way agencies plan for and budget major IT projects, Scott said Tuesday.

“This world where annually we decide what we're going to spend money on is not conducive to building a secure infrastructure,” he said. “It's not conducive to building the kind of infrastructure that the country needs. And the 1-year, 2-year, no-year money kind of thing just doesn't work well for building a solid IT foundation.”

Scott has already gone on record criticizing the end-of-the-year spending spree -- in which agencies concentrate contract spending into the last quarter of the fiscal year -- as “a really bad way to run IT.” Agencies end up continuing to spend on existing “legacy” projects, leaving fewer dollars for new development to replace aging, even creaking, systems, Scott argues.

“We don't have a regular plan for replacement or upgrade . . . We wait until we have a little extra money left over,” Scott said. “Or, there's a crisis, and then we panic and react and it's very expensive.”

A draft of the new A-130 guidance is expected in the coming weeks, with a final version coming in December.

Scott suggested the guidance will require agencies to plan for when and how infrastructure and “critical applications” get upgraded.

“Just like . . . roads and bridges or any other kind of infrastructure, this is an important part of how any agency delivers on its mission but sadly has been neglected over the years,” he said.

He added, “I think it's irresponsible if we don't address that in the next year or so and develop active plans for the replacement and upgrade of what is a very critical and necessary resource for us."

Also soon to be released is a public dashboard tracking agencies’ implementation of last year’s Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, which mandated several reforms to agencies’ IT-buying practices, including boosting the authority of agency CIOs.

Agencies over the summer submitted plans to OMB for restructuring their organizational charts to ensure CIOs have a spot at the decision-making table. The 2014 law required CIOs to sign off on their agency’s IT budget requests.

"By and large, most agencies met our expectations,” Scott said. “Overall, I was very pleased with the plans submitted. None were perfect, I will say.”

OMB is now coming through those plans and providing feedback to agencies to strengthen them.

“What's become very clear to me is that because of the way that IT is so deeply embedded in the mission of every single agency, it's a modern requirement that the leadership team of every agency very constructively and regularly engage in these IT discussions,” Scott said. “It's not just back-office processing anymore that we're talking about."

The public dashboard will debut in the next 30 days or so, Scott said.

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