IT insecurity and the need for better management

Effective implementation of FITARA is the government’s best hope to address decades of mismanagement and make IT systems more secure.

Richard Spires

In my previous column, I described the three primary root causes that have led to the massive data breaches and compromises of core mission IT systems at multiple federal agencies. The first root cause is the government's lack of the use of IT management best practices — a problem that goes back to the 1990s.

In that column, I stated that the best cybersecurity defense is the result of managing your IT infrastructure and software applications well. Yet the government's highly distributed approach to IT management has led to such complexity that for many agencies, maintaining a sea of vastly different systems in an ocean of differing IT infrastructures makes it impossible to properly secure such an IT environment.

Since at least the late 1990s, some leaders in government have realized that the highly distributed approach to IT management has significant downsides, but entrenched interests made it exceptionally difficult to effect the necessary changes. For instance, a number of laws have been passed that attempted to address IT management practices. Most notably, the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 mandated a strong agency CIO who could begin to rationalize IT within that agency.

Yet Clinger-Cohen is viewed largely as failed legislation in the federal IT community because in reality, no agency CIO has the authority granted by the act. Components, bureaus and program offices have generally resisted efforts to bring more oversight and discipline to IT management and operations, under the theory that it impedes mission and business progress.

The government does have another opportunity to address IT management weaknesses, however. In December 2014, Congress passed and the president signed the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, which was included in the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. FITARA is meant to address the systemic problems in managing IT effectively at agencies — and although there are a number of provisions, the bill's main intent is to empower agency CIOs to address those problems.

Foremost among these problems are duplication of IT infrastructure and systems, lack of adherence to best practices in IT acquisition, and implementation of proper procedures to ensure IT security is properly addressed throughout an agency's IT organization and infrastructure.

To make sure FITARA does not suffer the same fate as Clinger-Cohen, a successful rollout is critical. I am pleased to see the approach the Office of Management and Budget and U.S. CIO Tony Scott are taking to support the act. In developing its final guidance to help agencies implement FITARA, OMB sought significant outside input, including insight from former government CIOs, chief financial officers, chief acquisition officers, chief human capital officers and chief operating officers. OMB also sought public comment on the draft guidance, which will improve content, understanding and buy-in over the long term.

Yet a significant change-management component is required to transform decades of behavior, and this will take leadership and sustained commitment. Accountability for properly implementing FITARA must start with the White House, and then rest with OMB and the agencies. In particular, OMB must help ensure that agency CIOs have the capability to perform their jobs and the support of agency leaders so that CIOs can drive the required change to effectively implement FITARA.

Further, agency leaders must be supportive of their CIOs, especially at agencies that operate in a federated environment (this is particularly an issue in the Cabinet-level departments). Congress can support those efforts by demanding aggressive implementation of FITARA by agencies, development of measures for assessing FITARA's impact and transparency in reporting ongoing progress while also highlighting obstacles that need to be overcome.

There is much confusion regarding IT security and the best way to protect data and systems. No single product or service offers complete protection, and in my experience, if an agency does not implement IT management best practices, many of the security tools are ineffective. Those practices are foundational to success, and effective implementation of FITARA is the government's best hope to address decades of mismanagement.

My final column in this three-part series will cover steps agencies should be taking to rapidly improve their IT security posture, and I will provide recommendations related to the acquisition of IT security solutions.