White House Could Face Bipartisan Scorn if it Bucks IT Reform

 “This is the friendliest, most sympathetic bill you’re going to get out of Congress,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said of the reform act.

“This is the friendliest, most sympathetic bill you’re going to get out of Congress,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said of the reform act. Alex Brandon/AP file photo

The government will never get a fairer IT buying overhaul, a congressional technology leader warns.

If White House officials don’t get behind a House-passed bill that overhauls how the government buys information technology, they’re likely to face wrath from congressional Republicans and Democrats alike, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said Thursday.

Connolly co-sponsored the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The bill, which passed the House as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act in June, would mark the most significant update to government technology buying since the 1990s.

If agreed to by the Senate and signed by President Obama, the legislation would ensure every agency has a single chief information officer with broad authority over all IT spending. It would also put the power of law behind several existing administration initiatives, including a three-year-old program to consolidate federal data centers.

U.S. Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel has declined to support the reform bill, as have other Office of Management and Budget officials. VanRoekel testified Thursday before the House oversight committee’s government operations panel, on which Connolly is the ranking Democrat.

“This is the friendliest, most sympathetic bill you’re going to get out of Congress,” Connolly said of the reform act. “It is, in large measure, a codification of the initiatives and reforms undertaken by this administration mirabile dictu coming out of this Republican Congress. If the administration decides to spurn that legislation that’s been passed by the House already, I would just say you’re going to have problems on both sides of the aisle.”

VanRoekel did not directly address the reform legislation during his testimony and Connolly did not ask him to speak directly about the bill. VanRoekel has said that direct budget authority is less important for agency CIOs than having a “seat at the table” when major spending decisions are made.

VanRoekel announced during the hearing that broad reviews of agencies' IT portfolios, known as PortfolioStat, have yielded $885 million in savings so far.

David Powner, the top IT auditor at the Government Accountability Office, criticized VanRoekel’s office during the hearing for not forcing sufficient transparency about IT spending at the agency level.

He specifically cited the Federal IT Dashboard, which the White House launched as a transparency measure in 2009. The Defense Department, the government’s largest IT spender, hasn’t updated dashboard information on its major IT projects in two years and doesn’t list any projects as “high risk,” an assertion VanRoekel acknowledged is “laughable.”

VanRoekel said his office makes its rulings about which IT projects are high risk based on deeper metrics than agencies’ own evaluations.

Powner also criticized the administration for not forcing enough transparency about its data center consolidation initiative. VanRoekel changed the definition of a data center in 2011 to include even small server closets. Over time that’s resulted in the government’s official tally of data centers growing from 3,100 to roughly 7,000 with possibly more to come, Powner said.

VanRoekel made the right call by trying to wrap all government computing into the data center tally but his office has lagged on forcing agencies to be transparent about both their data center tallies and their efforts at consolidation, Powner said.

“There are some fundamental questions about whether the government really knows what it has,” he said.