Technology Legislation Slowly Crawling Forward

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These bills could benefit the federal government's operations.

It’s February and our government is open for business. Hopefully, it will stay that way this time because stopping and starting is no way for agencies to perform their critical missions. Now that things are getting back on track, we actually have some legislative movement in a few technology areas that will, I think, benefit the federal government as well as the rest of us.

First up, we have an update on one of my technology predictions for 2019. This was prediction number two on my list: that federal chief information officers would finally earn a voice in leadership decisions alongside other top federal managers. This is following closely after the same trend in the private sector where CIOs and even information technology directors are starting to get seats in the boardroom.

This makes sense in the private sector because so much of the infrastructure of almost every company depends on IT. It doesn’t matter if you’re running an airline, making car parts, processing food or anything else. If your technology isn’t able to handle demands, or if you can’t secure your infrastructure, you are in for a rough road. To avoid trouble, having a CIO advise the board about concerns and needs during the planning stages of new initiatives is much more preferable than calling them up after something catastrophic happens to help with damage control.

Agencies are little different from either medium-sized or large companies. They have hundreds or thousands of employees working on everything from desktops and notebooks to tablets and smartphones at locations all over the country and even the world. When you add in the things that they actually do, such as public outreach efforts or administering programs, it only adds to their infrastructure complexity.

Late last year the Federal CIO Authorization Act of 2018 would have given CIOs more of a leadership role at their agencies. The bill passed the House, but Congress at the time was at the very beginning of the recent shutdown battle, so it never really had the chance to pass the Senate before the end of the year.

But there is still hope. Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican from Texas who is extremely technology savvy and friendly, reintroduced the bill with identical wording as H.R.247, but now titled the Federal CIO Authorization Act of 2019. It was introduced on Jan. 6 and passed the House just 12 days later by voice vote, and with only 40 minutes of discussion. Now the bill heads to the Senate where perhaps it can be similarly supported.   

Even if you are not from Texas, you might have heard of Hurd before. He was the congressman who introduced the Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology Act that I highlighted in my last column about building a better border wall using technology instead of pouring miles of (ineffective) concrete. While his border wall idea to provide $100 million a year on technologies including radar, tunnel detection technology, unmanned aerial vehicles and sensors may never get the support it deserves, I have a good feeling about the old/new CIO Authorization Act this time around.

One bill that did recently get signed into law that might also change the way the federal government operates is H.R.4174, the inelegantly named Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2017. Nobody was talking too much about this one, and it languished in various committees for almost two years before finally getting signed by the president in January. But this one will have quite a few repercussions for how the government shares information.

For one, the new law requires that open government data (anything they approve or create to share with the public) be published and disseminated as machine-readable data. What that basically means is that government agencies will need to use something like the Structured Threat Information Expression—better known as STIX—language used in cybersecurity, or create something like it to distribute just about everything in the future in addition to whatever methods they are currently using. Essentially, they will be creating a feed that can be read, shared and parsed by other computers and be common across all of government.

That is actually a pretty big deal and won’t be an easy effort. To help with this process, the Office of Management and Budget is supposed to create a Chief Data Officer Council to advise on best practices and standards. That might even pave the way for a new type of federal leader, the chief data officer or CDO, to take responsibility for the new machine readable feeds each agency will generate.

The full scope of the new law and how feds will tackle their new open data challenges will likely be a major topic within OMB and other agencies for some time to come. On Thursday, the Center for Data Innovation is hosting an open forum on the issue where Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.,  and a host of data policy experts from academia and the private sector are scheduled to speak. The event will be live streamed if anyone wants to join me in listening in.

It looks like 2019 is shaping up to be an interesting year in government technology. And now that the government is back and open for businesses, we can start the hard work to also make it, and all of the information it provides, more open as well.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys