Proposed Law Would Give U.S. Chief Technology Officer Oversight of Major IT Projects

Todd Park, U.S. chief technology officer

Todd Park, U.S. chief technology officer Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The CTO’s office could manage the project itself or help the agency manage it.

Two members of Congress are floating legislation that would give the U.S. government’s chief technology officer the power to review and in some cases take charge of major information technology projects throughout the government.

The Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology, or RFP-IT, Act would put the power of legislation behind the position of federal chief technology officer, which has existed since the start of the Obama Administration.

The legislation would also put the CTO in charge of a Digital Government Office that reviews all agency proposals for “major IT projects.” After reviewing the proposal, the office could either manage the project itself, help the agency manage the project or leave the agency to manage the project itself.

The legislation would define a major IT project as any project that involves citizen services, such as a public-facing website, or has “high development, operating, or maintenance costs and a high risk of incurring significant cost overruns and schedule delays.” The law would exempt purchases of commodity information technology, such as computers and smartphones.

The proposed legislation from Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., comes on the heels of the disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov, the Obama administration’s online health insurance marketplace, which was largely managed within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Critics, including members of Congress, have said CMS lacked the technical expertise to manage the project itself and faulted the agency for trying to deliver too much at one time rather than breaking it up into smaller chunks.

Other large-scale government IT procurements, such as the Homeland Security Department’s Secure Border initiative, or SBInet, have a history of going over budget, past deadline and sometimes failing entirely. The Government Accountability Office has said federal agencies could save billions through smarter procurement procedures.

The RFP-IT Act would also give a legislative mandate to the Presidential Innovation Fellows program launched by current federal CTO Todd Park. Innovation fellows are technology workers, mostly from the private sector, who join the government on a short-term basis to work on one particularly thorny problem such as making government data more open or improving government communications during natural disasters.

The act would give the CTO power to draft innovation fellows into reviewing major agency IT projects.

Connolly is also a co-sponsor of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. That legislation would give agency chief information officers spending authority over their agency’s IT budgets and limit the government to one CIO per agency.

A spokesman for Connolly said he views the two bills as complementary to each other and not in conflict.

There’s no hard timeline for when Connolly and Eshoo will introduce the legislation, Connolly Spokesman George Burke said.

“We want to give stakeholders a sufficient amount of time to analyze the discussion draft and provide feedback,” he said. “And then we’ll need time to review comments and discuss potential enhancements further. Similar to FITARA, the goal is conduct an inclusive process to ensure we develop the most effective bill – and the specific drop date will be secondary to that.”

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