The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, approved by Congress in December, gives agency chief information officers unprecedented budgetary authority over IT investments.
It’s a big deal because CIOs across government have had varying levels of authority to nix underperforming tech projects or to direct spending toward innovative technologies.
While the CIO at the Department of Veterans Affairs previously had these powers for almost a decade, others have had them for far less. NASA’s lack of centralized IT budget authority prompted a scathing inspector’s general report in 2013 that showed the CIO only had control over 10 percent of the space agency’s $1.5 billion IT budget.
Imagine trying to pay your bills, manage expenses and balance your checkbook with access to only 10 percent of your income. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Now, like Spider-Man gifted with radioactive spider-infused superpowers, agency CIOs have new powers and new responsibilities, and the smart ones aren’t waiting to prepare. The early discussion among feds is that FITARA is a game changer if implemented properly – that is, if new CIOs use their powers for good.
Top industry IT execs feel much the same way, but they’re perhaps a little less exuberant about the end game.
“I think it’s a good step forward,” Intel Federal’s Chief Technologist Steve Orrin said of the legislation.
Orrin was one of several execs to speak with reporters Wednesday at the Cloudera Federal Forum in Tysons Corner, Virginia, which was produced by Custom Strategies, a division of Government Executive Media Group.
“You’re giving the CIO the power to buy the right stuff,” Orrin said. “I’m supportive of agency CIOs defining what they want to do.”
Cloudera founder Mike Olson shared similar sentiments.
“It could be huge,” Olson said. “On balance, it’s a good thing, if we can short-circuit the [acquisition problems] in government.”
Yet, fixing a procurement system designed to build warships to buy modern technology is an ask that CIOs – even with full budget authority – will find more complex than any single piece of legislation can tackle. The existing procurement system wasn’t created to be agile; it was designed to adhere to rules construed before modern telephones became household items.
“The next big thing would be to bring the acquisitions and procurement process to at least the modern era,” Orrin said.
Buying IT as a service – which the government will do to the tune of $7.3 billion in 2015, according to the Obama administration’s budget request – would obviously have to be addressed in any such overhaul of the procurement system. So would agile development, which entails building projects in chunks with deliverables, as opposed to the waterfall approach, where projects are built all at once. Projects built using the waterfall methodology are far more likely to fail, so it doesn’t make sense to pursue them unless absolutely necessary.
“In the commercial sector, you would not build the source of complex interactions you see in government,” Olson said.
Yet, FITARA’s infusing of budgetary authorities to CIOs may hold other benefits, too.
Seasoned mid-level CIOs in the private sector seeking experience before they land at Fortune 500 companies may find government CIO positions a little more attractive now. Candidates wouldn’t have to give up authoritative budget powers they likely possess in their current positions, meaning a larger talent pool for government agencies.
FITARA could also help the government retain its existing CIO talent. CIOs in government rarely last more than a few budget cycles; granting them budget authorities gives them the power to better forge their tech destiny.
“Rapid turnover in leadership is a problem,” Olson said. “We see a lot of projects that are three-year projects with three-and-a-half years of leadership. New leadership comes in and guess what? Nothing gets done.”
Of course, FITARA could also expose poorly performing CIOs who hide behind bureaucracy to justify why things aren’t getting done. In the private sector, Olson said, those folks get the boot.
“You can have competent and incompetent, and you have to be able to fire the incompetent,” he said.
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