Is a Senate-Confirmed Federal CIO the Key to IT Reform?

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.

Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. Charles Dharapak/AP File Photo

Bill envisions a newly created Digital Government Office in the White House

The role of federal chief information officer would be elevated to a Senate-confirmed position and would take responsibility for leading a newly created Digital Government Office, within the White House, under a bipartisan proposal introduced Wednesday.

The Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act, which has been circulating on Capitol Hill in draft form since January, also aims to crack open the insular federal contracting market by erasing “superfluous or unnecessary” barriers to entry for small and emerging companies seeking business with the government.

Bill authors Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., whose district includes Silicon Valley, and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., drafted the legislation in the wake of the rocky rollout last fall.

The website blunder “opened the floodgates of concerns and comments” from small startups and other innovative companies who have been scared away from selling to the government because of often-arcane acquisition regulations, Eshoo said.

“The federal government should be seeking out the best value for the taxpayer dollar, not the company that can best navigate thousands of pages of procurement regulations,” she said in a statement.

The bill would allow agencies to consider more proposals from small IT companies under simplified acquisition rules, which “will shorten procurement lead times and level the playing field for start-ups and small businesses -- a critical factor in a technology sector that is characterized by the constant influx of new entrants and rapidly evolving products and services,” Connolly said in a statement.

The legislation would also overhaul the White House Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology -- part of the Office of Management and Budget -- and rename it the Digital Government Office.

The federal chief information officer -- a position that has existed in name only since the beginning of the Obama administration and currently held by Steven VanRoekel -- would need to be confirmed by the Senate and would lead the revamped office in coordinating governmentwide federal IT policy.

A digital service team within the office would be empowered to parachute into agencies to help address high-priority and at-risk IT projects.

The leadership of the White House tech office is one of the key differences from the draft version. That earlier version would have made the U.S. chief technology officer, a position currently held by Todd Park, the office’s leader. The more recent version instead keeps that authority vested with the federal CIO.

The Eshoo-Connolly bill, so far, has four co-sponsors, including one Republican, Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y.

Meanwhile, there are hopeful signs for a broader overhaul of the IT procurement system.

A pared-down version of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act -- similar to legislation twice approved by the House -- is awaiting a vote in the Senate.

That legislation would require a single CIO at every agency responsible for managing its IT portfolio.