5 Ways to Get a Leg Up on FITARA

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Although the impact on IT decision-making processes remains unclear, federal IT leaders should consider how FITARA can create an opportunity for positive change in IT governance.

Kris Van Riper is a practice leader at CEB and Lon Zanetta is a senior executive adviser at CEB.

Many federal IT leaders are uncertain of what to expect from the recent passage of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. With the Office of Management and Budget’s formal implementation guidance expected to be issued soon, federal CIOs are actively thinking through ways to interpret what the legislation will mean for their individual agencies.

Although the impact on IT decision-making processes remains unclear, federal IT leaders should look ahead and consider how FITARA’s framework can create an opportunity for positive change in IT governance. 

The law indicates department CIOs should approve IT budgets and must play “a significant role” in the planning and approval of major IT investments. While this certainly promotes CIOs’ involvement in making strategic IT investments, rolling it out will not be easy, as there is a risk in department CIOs taking a “one size fits all” approach that may not reflect the diverse missions across many different components. 

Additionally, the old piece of Washington wisdom to “follow the money” will serve CIOs well in the future, as they are unlikely to have full control over all new investments and legacy operating expenses. With the appropriations process unchanged, most IT funding will continue to go directly to the components outside of the department CIOs' direct line of sight.

Instead of leading through control, FITARA may be a very good opportunity for CIOs to lead through influence. As Margie Graves, deputy CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, recently said at a forum on FITARA: “You look at the way your governance structure lays out and you say, ‘Where is the most important point at which to insert that authority so that you can influence the outcome in terms of mission delivery?’”

Lastly, collaborative relationships between department CIOs and their components, including those with deep mission knowledge, will prove most productive and sustaining. Given that federal agency CIOs often have shorter tenures -- an average of 18 months according to our research -- they will benefit from working closely with deputy CIOs. These individuals have longer average tenures, which may provide department CIOs with additional institutional context and understanding of specific mission needs. 

Department CIOs should consider specific tactics to ensure they are collaborating effectively with their component CIOs:

  • Engage senior leaders to champion collaboration. By setting clear expectations for collaboration by all IT leaders across the organization, the department head can establish agencywide expectations for cooperation.
  • Set appropriate investment benchmarks. The best agencies will ensure investments are directed toward the department’s highest overall priorities. Department CIOs need to consider how component IT budgets and program portfolios should work together to identify suitable benchmark comparisons based on their specific mission peers, scope and business capabilities.
  • Form a cross-department CIO council. Agencies that have not already done so should form a council made up of component CIOs as a place for members to discuss common priorities and challenges. Consider asking the department head to send the initial invitations and to open the first session.
  • Evaluate governance processes across the agency. Through a CIO council, re-engineer governance processes to make them more adaptive by creating tiers of governance that can flex based on business benefits and capabilities, mission priorities, risks and costs.
  • Build collaborative relationships at the deputy CIO and CTO level. Although FITARA is not explicit in outlining a role for deputy CIOs and CTOs, together these executives can play a critical role in outlining a long-term technology strategy and ensuring effective execution.

FITARA addresses much more than CIO authority. It covers many governance issues from portfolio analysis to IT procurement practices. Successful implementation of this change will depend on several factors, including gaining better clarity in the authority levels of CIOs, closing the gap between authority and accountability for the department CIO and, most importantly, fundamentally enhancing internal communication and cooperation among IT leaders.

(Image via luchunyu/ Shutterstock.com)

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