How Powerful are CIOs under FITARA? House Oversight Puts GAO on the Case

Federal CIO Tony Scott

Federal CIO Tony Scott Susan Walsh/AP

The enhancement of CIO authorities is a “critical” element to FITARA’s success.

Top members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee want congressional watchdogs to examine whether a landmark federal IT reform law has actually resulted in more powerful agency chief information officers.

The 2014 Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act aimed to turn around a track record of big-budget federal IT failures by beefing up the authority of CIOs to oversee and direct IT spending at their agencies.

The enhancement of CIO authorities is a “critical” element to FITARA’s success, wrote a bipartisan coterie of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee members in a June 21 letter to the head of the Government Accountability Office, Gene Dodaro.

The letter tasks GAO with conducting a study to determine whether agencies have actually implemented enhanced CIO authorities and to identify “key challenges that federal CIOs face in exercising their authority to carry out federal law.”

In particular, the letter wants GAO to determine whether CIOs at each of the 24 largest federal civilian agencies report directly to the head of their agencies and to “make recommendations for the appropriate reporting relationship to facilitate implementation of CIO authorities under FITARA."

The letter was signed by oversight committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah; Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md.; and a handful of other members.

Since Congress approved FITARA in December 2014, the White House Office of Management and Budget has issued guidelines to agencies for implementing the law. As part of that guidance, OMB has required agencies to write self-assessment plans explaining how they plan to boost the CIO role.

GAO’s findings could help settle longstanding questions about potential turf wars between newly empowered agency CIOs and chief financial officers, who have typically been the agency officials controlling an agency’s purse strings.

“Some CFOs are worried about losing power; some are working closely with CIOs,” GAO’s Director of IT Management Issues Dave Powner testified before the House oversight committee last month. “We’ve seen some progress, but we need more equal footing.”

Over the past several months, the oversight committee has released a series of “scorecards” to track agencies’ progress implementing FITARA. Measures on the scorecard included consolidating inefficient data centers and netting savings from IT portfolio reviews. Quantifying CIO authorities has been trickier.