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Tech Leaders’ Top Recommendations for Fixing Federal IT Challenges

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Last September, U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro convened more than a dozen tech experts and current and former federal officials to offer solutions to the challenges the federal government faces in IT acquisition and operations.

The forum took place Sept. 14 and identified key actions related to strengthening the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, enhancing chief information officer authorities and improving budget formulation, governance, workforce operations and transition planning.

The event was held “with the goal of better informing policymakers and government leadership,” said Dave Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s director of IT management issues, in a summary of the forum released today.

GAO’s compilation is chock full of insights and very much worth a read, but we’ve distilled a few key insights here. The list of participants is included at the end of this article.

On improving FITARA: “Forum participants agreed that FITARA is the government’s best chance to improve federal agencies’ IT acquisitions and operations,” according to the summary. Participants were optimistic about increased collaboration among federal It stakeholders and Congress’ oversight efforts, which has led to more transparency about agencies’ IT investments.  

Yet, FITARA could “go the way of Clinger-Cohen”—a law that previously addressed IT issues—if certain issues go unaddressed. Key among them: more aggressive congressional oversight, a strengthened role from the Office of Management and Budget and forcing the Defense Department to fulfil FITARA.

The last recommendation is a doozy, and sure to ruffle feathers in the Pentagon. About one-third of the government’s $90 billion IT budget goes to the nation’s military branches, which has a reputation for struggling with IT management, yet it hasn’t had to comply with FITARA.

Improving CIO Authorities: CIO authorities across government have improved since FITARA mandated the top tech officials in agencies actually have power of the purse over IT investment, but work remains.

At a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform’s IT subcommittee last month, Powner said more than half of cabinet-level CIOs still lack complete control over IT investments. That means they still don’t have the power to pull the plug on failed investments, which flies in the face of FITARA’s core tenants.

Participants identified four actions that could continue momentum CIOs have made in attaining authority: Have the CIO Council play an enhanced role in improving authorities; implement collaborative governance; evolve the role of the CIO to enable change and use cybersecurity to change existing cultures.

Better budgeting: Tech budgeting isn’t easy. OMB requires agencies to identify IT investments and related costs as part of the budget formulation process, and in turn uses that info to evaluate the results of agency’s major IT investments.

Yet, it’s a flawed process in part, as the summary states, because “CIOs do not always have control over the entire IT budget.” In other words, CIOs don’t know what they don’t know, and problems are compounded because agencies don’t share the same definition of IT.

The Energy Department, for example, attributed $368 million for supercomputing investments to its facilities budget, not IT as one might expect. Similarly, the Commerce Department reported nearly $450 million in satellite investments as non-IT.

Participants recommended simplifying the definition of IT to help alleviate this issue, and called for the use of spending plans to improve budgeting. In such a scenario, program managers of major IT programs, as well as bureau IT leaders or CIOs, collaborate to better identify IT costs. In addition, forum participants called for closer relationships between CIOs and procurement shop, and between agencies and congressional committees “to explore budgeting flexibilities.”

Governance: It’s no secret governance continues to be a major issue in federal IT. Congress has explored, for example, why chief financial officers and CIOs sometimes clash over IT investments, and subsequently found that CIOs who report to the tops of their agencies have stronger authority over IT decision-making.

Forum participants reported that enhanced governance at OMB, coupled with support from agency leadership, ought to make a significant difference in addressing IT issues. In addition, participants suggested agencies adopt a “buy more, develop less” approach, but added that agencies must strengthen oversight for IT purchased as a service. In other words, an agency should not give up its oversight responsibilities of tech investments simply because it's moving data off-premise into a cloud managed by a vendor.

Workforce: The average tenure of CIOs in government is less than 2 years, and many don’t even last that long. Frequently changing leaders is bad for continuity, and one participant suggested 5-year term limits ought to be considered for agencies to “transcend administrations.”

Collectively, participants stated the U.S. CIO should play a more active role in attracting agency CIOs.

“They viewed the federal CIO as being in a unique position with White House backing to help recruit CIOs to the federal government,” the summary states.

Another suggestion was for the U.S. CIO to create a “pool of highly skilled CIOs” through the establishment of three to give CIO advisory positions within the Federal CIO Council. When openings at agencies come up, this crew could craft a strategy to replace the departing CIO with the right talent—with the White House’s backing.

Operations: Legacy technology dominates government IT spending, consuming an estimated three-quarters of all dollars allocated toward tech. Short of new legislation that allows agencies to bank away modernization savings—which could be coming soon—there are few easy solutions to this problem.

Participants said the most obvious solution is to move more applications and systems to cloud computing. However, cloud migrations are challenging and require a strategic approach, as moving to cloud is much more easily said than done because no two IT systems in government are quite the same.

Yet, even successful migrations can cause headaches for agencies who then have to “mitigate the impact on jobs when closing data centers.” Contractors can be cut easily when data centers close, but it’s another matter dealing with what to do with feds whose jobs are tied to those closing data centers.

Transition planning: Transitions are hard, particularly on the career staff that hold integral roles in ensuring the mission continues. To ensure IT doesn’t get lost in the transition shuffle, forum participants recommended conveying IT and cyber issues early to leadership, forcing new personnel to understand the importance and ramification technology and cybersecurity play within government.

In conjunction, the participants encouraged Congress to focus on IT and cyber at confirmation hearings. If nothing else, they said, it will reinforce those issues as integral toward mission success. Lastly, participants encouraged GAO to highlights its work as the lead agency in providing advice to the incoming administration.

Participants in the forum included: Vivek Kundra, executive vice president at Salesforce and former U.S. CIO; Dave McClure, chief strategist, Veris Group, LLC, and former associate administrator, Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, General Services Administration; Richard McKinney, CIO, Transportation Department; Richard Spires, CEO, Learning Tree International, and former CIO, Homeland Security Department; Jonathan Alboum, CIO, Agriculture Department; Roger Baker, consultant, Roger Baker Consulting, LLC, and former CIO, Veterans Affairs Department; Dan Chenok, executive director, IBM Center for the Business of Government, and former chief, information technology branch, OMB; Casey Coleman, group vice president, civilian agencies, Unisys Corp., and former CIO, GSA; Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.; Steve Cooper, CIO, Commerce Department; Tom Davis, director of federal government affairs for Deloitte, LLP, and former member of the House of Representatives; Karen Evans, national director, U.S. Cyber Challenge, and former administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology, OMB; and Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas.

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