Are Agency CIOs Still Too Timid on IT Reform?

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Agencies are still finalizing plans laying out how their CIOs meet an OMB-created set of common baselines for the role.

When the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this month released scorecards measuring progress meeting toward IT reform, the grades earned by federal agencies were pretty dismal.

The scorecards graded agencies on four elements of the 2014 Federal Information Technology and Acquisition Reform Act, including data center consolidation and IT portfolio review savings.

But what they weren't evaluated on is a key factor in future FITARA success: the extent to which agency chief information officers control their agency purse strings when it comes to major IT acquisition projects and IT spending in general.

And it’s not too clear how many agencies would pass with flying colors if they were graded on it.

The legislative language underpinning FITARA is fairly straightforward: CIOs need to approve their agency’s IT budget and must give the all clear to major tech procurements.

But making these high-minded dictates an operational reality in a sprawling federal bureaucracy is another matter.

For his part, Richard McKinney, CIO of the Transportation Department, said he’s taken a proactive stance.

The day after a Nov. 4 hearing on FITARA before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, McKinney said he sat down with Transportation’s chief acquisition officer and other acquisition for a big announcement: He was instituting a temporary pause on all new IT purchases.

McKinney said he’s making exceptions if something urgent comes along.

“But I want to see who shows up on my doorstep with a good justification for buying anything, because I think we don't have a very good handle on what we have now, so I don't see why I want to buy any more of it,” McKinney said Tuesday at an AFFIRM luncheon on FITARA implementation.

However, early indications show many other agency CIOs aren’t quite ready to grab the reins and are still leading from behind.

Agencies are still finalizing plans laying out how their CIOs meet an OMB-created set of common baselines for the role. Agencies over the summer submitted first drafts of their plans to the Office of Management and Budget detailing concrete steps they’ve taken to boost the CIO’s role in budget and spending.

In his testimony before the oversight committee earlier this month, federal CIO Tony Scott said reviewing those plans shows some agency IT chiefs are still taking a hands-off approach to managing IT spending.

Scott cited a “gap in CIO involvement” when it came to formulating an agency’s budget. The plans “often reflected a passive rather than active CIO role,” Scott said in his prepared testimony. In addition, many of the plans indicated CIOs -- contrary to the letter of the FITARA law -- wouldn’t have insight into major IT acquisitions at their agencies.

OMB asked several agencies to go back to the drawing board on their plans.

So far, OMB has OK’d plans belonging to the National Science Foundation and the Agriculture Department, said Malissa Levesque, a policy analyst in the federal CIO’s office, during the AFFIRM event. The remaining large agencies and departments submitted retooled plans Nov. 13. Once approved, OMB plans to feature the plans on an online dashboard.

"That's kind of the big thing we're driving forward is really working with agencies for improving their plans and how to support their implementation of FITARA and our guidance,” Levesque said.