Government’s IT Watchdog on the Tech Challenges He Leaves Behind

GAO’s Information Technology Management Issues Director Dave Powner (center) arrive to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the 2020 Census May 8.

GAO’s Information Technology Management Issues Director Dave Powner (center) arrive to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the 2020 Census May 8. Andrew Harnik/AP

After 16 years, the Government Accountability Office’s IT Director Dave Powner has seen federal technology improve but here’s what he hopes agencies and Congress continue to work on.

As the lead on IT issues at the Government Accountability Office, Dave Powner has learned a lot about federal technology during two decades of public service.

During that time, he’s written countless reports on inefficiencies in government IT spending and operations and was a fixture of oversight hearings on Capitol Hill. In recent years, Powner has been a vocal advocate for data center consolidation and holding agencies accountable to the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act through quarterly scorecards.

As he leaves for a new position with MITRE Corp., Powner talked with Nextgov about how government technology and buying has changed and the to-do list he leaves behind.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: How long have you been in government?

Powner: Since I returned to the government, I've been back about 16 years. But you know I spent almost 10 years prior at GAO. So, it was like 10, four away and then 16 back. So, this last stint was a pretty solid stint.

What attracted you to public service in the first place?

When I look at the mission of GAO and what it's about—you know, working on big, important programs for the taxpayer. It’s really about the mission at GAO and I really like the mission a lot.

How has federal IT changed over the course of your career?

I would say, recently, probably like 2010 forward, I’ve seen some massive changes. So, a couple things:

Recently, the [chief information officer] position has become much more prominent with bolstering the authorities—I think a lot of that has to do with FITARA and the [FITARA] Scorecard and that stuff—but I think the role of the CIO, that's really improved.

When the scorecard started, 58 percent of the projects we're using a six-month incremental approach. Now 87 percent of the projects governmentwide. That's pretty good. We’ve still got 13 percent that I guess are using waterfall or something—that's not right—but we do have almost 90 percent of the projects are taking the smaller approach.

I think the buy versus build—electronic health records is a good example, with [Veterans Affairs] and [the Defense Department]—that’s good.

Initially in my career, we focused a lot on IT acquisitions and not a lot on operations. And I think in the last seven or eight years it's been a lot about inefficient data centers, duplicative business systems, the old legacy systems that need to be replaced, the eight-inch floppy report was a big hit. I think the emphasis on the inefficient operations and the old legacy stuff, that's been a big change and I think the focus on it can only help.

So, really good improvement on CIO authorities, acquisitions and the ops.

So, you’ve seen acquisitions improve—and increase—at the same time agencies are focusing more on operations? Strange that it’s not an inverse relationship.

We’ve seen improvement in both categories actually, and that's good. Now, it's not to say that on all those things [there isn’t more that] needs to be done further.

We still need to continue to attract really high-quality CIOs and you only do that by making sure they are really elevated in agencies. We still have some agencies [where CIOs] don't report high enough. That's not going to be helpful; we’ve got to fix that.

Do I think we need to still get stronger relationships with the [chief financial officers] and [chief acquisition officers] with acquisition shops. Absolutely. I think things like [Technology Business Management] could help a lot with that relationship between the CIO and CFO. I think the current administration focus on that with the [President’s Management Agenda]—that's a healthy thing. But the CIO authorities still need to be strengthened. It’s not where we need it to be right now despite the attention.

The IT workforce. I know there's a big focus on the cyber workforce, but we also have gaps in architects and engineers and other key positions. So, you’ve got to start with the people—the leaders in the workforce. There's still work ahead on that.

We hear a lot about training the next generation to fill the workforce gaps. But have you heard any solid ideas for getting more tech-savvy people into the government workforce today?

I think that's a great question. There are some good things with some of the programs where you can dedicate yourself to federal service and that helps you give back—those are all healthy. But I really think the long-term solution is it's not about these minor bumps [in pay] because even the minor bumps aren't going to equate to private-sector salaries. It's really about appealing to mission. Some of these agencies you could appeal to mission and you can get some really great training.

I look at the intelligence agencies and things you do with DOD— there are some really cool things you could do with the federal government. And like at [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], you have space missions and things. Talk about really cool things that folks can work on, not only from an IT but from a cyber perspective. I think that’s the whole key.

And even with the CIOs—folks that returned from the private sector feel like they can give the government several years and use their private-sector experience and help out. You know, like Dana Deasy is a great example over at DOD—super, super qualified and they put the cloud initiatives under him.

I think a lot of people have this attraction to the mission and it's not like they don’t know about government’s slow, bureaucratic and this and that—there are a lot of negatives with government. But there's a great mission. I mean just super missions. Look at the benefits payment system. It's pretty cool to work on things that could help with Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. Some people don’t find that sexy. But when you look at it, some of that stuff does appeal to certain folks. So, we just need to continue to try to work that.

Not every program is that sexy. Is the idea of public service enough of a draw people in?

I think there’s a lot of folks that appeals to. Is it the numbers we need? Likely not. And not with the real quality folks. But again, I do think it's important just to continue to highlight the mission.

Overall, what do you think you’ve accomplished during your time in government? What kind of impact have you made?

I’ll point to most recently with the FITARA initiatives. I do think helping to elevate the role of CIOs, incremental development, the focus on ops. I mean, I look at the data center area: 7,000 data centers closed, that’s $4 billion in savings—that's pretty good stuff. There's still more work because we still have server utilization not necessarily completely where it needs to be. But there are some pretty good accomplishments on data centers.

Another good one that I think people lose sight of is the [IT] Dashboard. That was started in the Obama administration under Vivek Kundra. I think there are some improvements we can make to it, but I do think what we're spending, how much we're spending on these investments and systems and then you get an indication of how well they're doing with CIO ratings, that transparency is really good. We never had that before the dashboard was in place. And it’s kind of come and gone, with sometimes the accuracy has been stronger than at other times. Would I like to see it even be more accurate? Sure. But I think the transparency, the focus on operations with data centers, the focus on legacy systems and highlighting the challenges we have with hardware that’s not under warranty or these old languages that we're losing the workforce that can maintain and modify that code, and the security issues with that legacy stuff. Those have been good things. Not to say that we've solved the problem. But to have a focused attention on those things, those have been really great accomplishments.

But I will say this: GAO can write all the reports in the world and do things but unless Congress really does their job with oversight hearings, the consistent scorecards, that's where a lot of credit needs to go. Because we sit here and do our job and what write a report and you get a big splash when it comes out and there’s some media attention or a hearing. But I think Congress and in particular the [House] Oversight and Government Reform Committee, that's really good.

The other good thing with Congress, too, is good to point out: the House authorization committee for VA is forming a committee to oversee the EHR initiative. That's really good stuff. And hopefully, that'll help with more successful delivery for our vets.

So, we've seen a lot of good progress I think in those areas. I think that's kind of rewarding. But there’s still a lot to do. And GAO will continue their work. There are some good folks who are going to be doing some of the work I did who are very, very capable.

Who's going to be taking over your work?

So, there'll be a couple. Carol Harris will be taking the majority of the FITARA work and the Census work will be going to Nick Marinos who does a lot of our security work. So, GAO is in very capable hands with those two individuals. I have a lot of respect for both of them.

What’s on the to-do list you’re leaving behind for agencies and Congress?

I think the big thing that you need to focus on is start with the people part of it: the CIO authorities. Let’s elevate everyone appropriately. We’ve got nine agencies that still need to do that.

I also think we need to continue to build stronger relationships with the CFO and the CAOs. I still think there's room for improvement for those executives to function more as a unified team. That was the intent of FITARA. TBM will probably help a lot with that CFO/CIO relationship—that’s a big deal. Strengthening the executive team relationships, that's No. 1.

I think in the acquisition world, I would say it's very important that we need to continue to build strong governance over these acquisitions that we have. As I said, I think we’re going smaller, I think we're buying more than building than in the past—we need to continue those trends. But do we have strong governance over all of our acquisitions where we’re catching problems early and managing the risk aggressively? I don't think so. I still think there’s big room for improvement there.

And again, those types of governance for the CFOs and CAOs and [chief human capital officers] and they all play a role in that as executive partners overseeing that. Ultimately, I think they need to be accountable, those governance boards. So, god forbid you have any more failed acquisitions. But there will be, right? Instead of blaming the program manager, let's blame the executives who should be running the governance boards. I think there just needs to be more accountability there.

On the operations side, we could talk about additional work on data centers with infrastructure, duplicative systems and all that stuff. Good progress. The big, big, big, big, giant thing that needs to be done is the focus on the legacy applications and the conversion.

In the current administration, we have a modernization strategy and the focus is on the networks and shared services. It does a great job on security. Does it do a strong enough job on converting the legacy apps? I think we could do a better job there. Let’s get out of the old legacy stuff into something that's hardware under warranty and modern languages and security features that are where they need to be.

There's some good work GAO’s doing on kind of a follow-on to that legacy report we did. The work started, so it'll continue here. We’re looking at the most important legacy applications that need either lift and shift or conversion. We've asked each agency for their top three legacy priorities. You do that 24 times three and you have a list of about 75 priorities and then we're going whittle that down to the top 20 to 25. What's really good is a list of 75 things that are critical for our nation to get modern with. That’s a good list.

I actually feel good with where we're at with the data centers and that portfolio. I don't feel as good with where we're at with addressing the old legacy stuff.

I’m sure the Technology Modernization Fund Board would love to see that list. You’re on record as being in favor of the fund. But Senate appropriators are saying they don't want to put more money into it until they see results. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think Congress should put more money into the fund so that the board can continue to do more projects or should they wait and see how these first projects come out before continuing with the program?

That whole area has been such a debate. Even when you look at what was the original intent with that central fund—it was a pretty good chunk of money at one time and it got whittled down to something much smaller. I think you do want to see results.

Again, the amount of money was so small. My focus has always been with the [Modernizing Government Technology Act] the working capital funds. I still think the amount of money you can save, I know on data centers and PortfolioStat with duplicate business systems. But the software license area alone, I think this year alone there's about $350 million in savings on just software licensing management. That's way larger than the central fund just on software licenses.

It's always nice to have an influx of money to tackle additional priorities. But what I would like to see is more agencies take advantage of a working capital fund. I think it was kind of sad with the last scorecard when you only had three agencies—it was DHS, Labor and SBA—that committed to doing a working capital fund as called for in the MGT Act. I think they all need to do that.

So, there's this big debate they'll have—I’ll probably want to stay out of that. But I’d really focus on the working capital fund because you control that—agencies control that—so let’s get after it.

With all that’s still to be done, why are you leaving now?

I think the world of GAO and the mission and the leadership here. And I thank GAO for all the opportunities. It’s a great place.

Sometimes you get an opportunity that excites you and you feel like you can do some good there and leverage a lot of the things I've learned here at GAO over the years. So, that's kind of why. It's all about a nice opportunity. And I think GAO is in a good position going forward.

Do you think you'll ever find your way back to public service?

Never say never.

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