CIOs May Find a Secret Weapon in FITARA

Orhan Cam/

One CIO threatened to cut off access for insecure users and put a freeze on IT spending.

Under orders from the White House this summer, agencies raced to plug gaps in their online defenses during a 30-day cybersecurity “sprint.”

Richard McKinney, chief information officer of the Transportation Department, says he sat down with agency leadership and pledged upfront to increase the percentage of privileged users required to use a Personal Identity Verification card to log on to agency networks to 100 percent.

That was one of the key items on U.S. CIO Tony Scott’s cyber checklist motivated by the colossal hack of sensitive employee files at the Office of Personnel Management.

But what made McKinney so confident?

Because he threatened to revoke network access for employees who missed the deadline, he says.

That get-tough attitude is still rare for agency CIOs, as the number of languishing inspector general recommendations, missed deadlines and expired security authorizations can attest.

It turns out McKinney had a not-so-secret weapon.

“That sprint was the first time I invoked FITARA,” McKinney said during a panel discussion this week on CIOs' new authorities under the 2014 Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act hosted by MeriTalk. Introduced as a legislative remedy to the kind of big-budget, failed IT projects that often plague government (and thrown into high relief by the 2013 debacle), FITARA gives agency CIOs more control over their agency’s IT budget and IT purchasing decisions.

Later, McKinney flexed his FITARA muscle again. After meeting with acquisition staff last month, he announced a temporary freeze on IT contracting at the agency, he said.

The move was necessary because of a persistent lack of visibility into IT spending, McKinney said.  

"We have IT acquisition going on and not even the component CIOs knew about it,” he said. “In other words, there was spend going on that nobody was weighing in on."

He added: "Until the component CIOs can present me with a comprehensive IT spend plan, I'm going to use the FITARA authority to say, 'I'm not approving any IT purchases.' And that generated quite a conversation. But it's a good conversation.”

Still, it’s unclear how many other agencies are taking similar FITARA-empowered steps.

Agencies completed self-assessments of their CIOs’ authorities and put together plans for how they plan to meet a common baseline of responsibilities set out by law and encapsulated in guidance from Office of Management and Budget. Agencies handed in first drafts in August.

OMB is preparing to go live with an online dashboard compiling the results.

"What we did find is that there is some gaps in CIO visibility” into some IT projects, said Bill Zielinski, part of the oversight team at OMB -- essentially, federal CIO Scott's chief FITARA overseer.

For example, some agencies had devised thresholds -- quite high in some places -- that allowed IT purchasing without the CIO's approval or even knowledge, he said.  

"If you have millions of IT dollars flowing through that the CIO never sees, it's hard to get to the intent of what FITARA's really looking for, that accountability,” Zielinski said.

In agencies where CIOs kept abreast of the ledger, not all of them have “an action-oriented role,” he added.

“This [is the] idea that, ‘I see what's being spent in the budget; it doesn't mean that I had an opportunity to influence that in some sort of way,’" Zielinski said.

For its part, OMB is shifting its tone on FITARA, away from talk of  “CIO authorities” -- which may come across as too adversarial for the federal C-suite -- and toward “strategic partnerships" among IT executives and other members of an agency’s leadership team.

That’s mostly semantics to legislative champions of FITARA.

"I don't care what we call the CIO or his or her authority,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., co-author of the legislation. “But I do know this: To have 250 people with that title among 24 agencies is inefficient and is a recipe for non-accountability, because no one's really in charge. No one's really infused with the ultimate authority and responsibility to manage IT assets."

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