Ten scorecards later, lawmakers and experts are looking for new ways to update the metrics on which agencies are graded.
It took federal agencies five years and ten FITARA scorecards before they could cross a major milestone: passing grades for all 24 reviewed agencies. Lawmakers said the scorecard isn’t going anywhere, though they do want to evolve the metrics to match the modernization challenges agencies face.
Momentum is growing for improving the FITARA scorecard and technology modernization efforts more broadly. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular put a spotlight on the need to update legacy systems, David Powner, the former director of IT issues at the Government Accountability Office who was involved in the drafting of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, told Nextgov.
For example, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., wrote letters in June to ten agencies requesting information related to their IT modernization strategies. Hassan asked directly about FITARA implementation and how coordination can be improved to better address modernization issues. Responses to Hassan’s letter were due Monday. Hassan’s office told Nextgov it does not yet have any updates to share regarding the letters.
Reps. Gerry Connelly, D-Va., and Jody Hice, R-Ga., chairman and ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform subcommittee on Government Operations, underscored the need for this kind of aggressive oversight and communication with agencies at Monday’s scorecard hearing.
One of the ways this could happen is through updating the FITARA scorecard to cover more bases with higher levels of nuance. The scorecard began in 2015 with just four categories, but has since expanded to include ten measurements, eight of which are given letter grades. So the scorecard has been a living standard from the start. But renewed interest may inspire more comprehensive change.
“It’s a good sign when you get the Senate and the House equally engaged on these things and if you can do it in a bipartisan way, bicameral, then we’re likely to make some progress,” Powner said.
At Monday’s hearing, five rough areas for where the scorecard should evolve emerged out of the testimony.
CIO Reporting Structure
One of the most immediate areas in which agencies could improve their FITARA scores is by ensuring that chief information officers have a seat at the table at the highest level of decision-making. Carol Harris, who testified on behalf of GAO at Monday’s hearing, said a third of agencies are not fulfilling the outlined CIO requirements. But there may be more to the CIO problem than meeting the basic reporting requirement.
Agencies should go deeper when it comes to ensuring CIOs are getting the support they need to undertake the kind of big projects successful IT modernization requires, LaVerne Council, former CIO for the Veterans Affairs Department, said. In her testimony, she recommended the scorecard include an agencywide CIO support metric.
“Measuring each agency head’s direct support of their CIO in a real, honest way can help the committee understand whether or not the agency CIOs have the advocacy and endorsement they need to enact the constant change required by technology implementation,” Council’s written testimony reads.
Budgeting to Reflect Modernization Needs
The second major category on which agencies needed work as in the establishment of working capital funds for modernization, Harris said. She told the committee she wants to see a more aggressive push to implement these funds as quickly as possible. Hice, though, pointed out that even if every agency had an established fund, there isn’t a good metric to measure how those funds are being used.
“It does not deal with whether or not any of those funds are being used to modernize old systems,” Hice said.
To that end, experts suggested adding an expanded, comprehensive budgeting category to the scorecard. Powner said it's imperative to ensure budgets truly reflect modernization needs. In his mind, a budgeting and funding category would include working capital funds while also incorporating information on IT costs to better reflect needs. Council referred to this as agencies’ “fiscal reality,” a phrase which Powner thought captured the problem well.
“You really need to make sure the budget reflects the modernization needs,” Powner said. “If it really did, we probably wouldn’t have these flat budgets from year to year, maybe these slight increases, you would start to see spikes and peaks at times.”
Both Powner and Richard Spires, former CIO at the Department of Homeland Security and the IRS, called for a category that would include metrics measuring the customer experience. Spires said IT organizations have both internal customers—the agency employees—and external customers—citizens—that they must serve.
If legacy systems are going to be dismantled and replaced with modern ones, IT missions need to be updated to reflect the needs of their customers, too, Powner said. A mission modernization category that includes requirements to do customer satisfaction surveys should be included in the scorecard, they said. Powner added this metric should include answers to questions like what are agencies’ most important acquisitions and should agencies retire any systems that are out of date.
Maria Roat, deputy federal CIO at the Office of Management and Budget, said at the hearing she, too, was interested in working with Congress on creating metrics to capture the customer experience. Roat and Spires both pointed to the 2018 Integrated Digital Experience Act, or IDEA Act, as precedent for such a metric.
“That is a perfect example of a metric that could evolve over time, as agencies are continuing to improve their websites and their customer experience with the American public,” Roat said.
One of the few areas of disagreement at the hearing came up in discussions about data center consolidation. Though it has largely been a successful aspect of FITARA implementation, Harris said GAO is worried about inconsistent definitions for what constitutes a data center.
In June 2019, the Office of Management and Budget’s updated Data Center Optimization Initiative Policy changed the definition of a data center to a “purpose-built, physically separate, dedicated space that meets certain criteria” from a broader one that included servers running in nontraditional locations like closets—facilities that are surprisingly common. A GAO report from 2020 said the new definition means agencies wouldn’t have to report on about 2,000 facilities that continue to operate.
“We still remain very concerned about the new definition of data centers,” Harris said. “Our concern in particular is because when agencies stop reporting on these data centers, they'll fall under the radar, they’ll stop looking at them in general.”
Harris said that creates security vulnerabilities, adding that for this reason and others, the data center category should stay on the scorecard. But another idea may be able to supplant it by creating a broader IT infrastructure category so Congress can continue providing oversight on data centers as well as measure how well agencies are leveraging cloud computing.
An infrastructure category could also include measurements showing whether agencies are properly modernizing their telecommunications infrastructure by moving to the Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions, or EIS, contracting vehicle, according to Powner and Spires. The tenth scorecard measured how far along agencies are in transitioning off the Networx system to EIS, but Powner said that measurement could be made clearer with an enhanced infrastructure category on the scorecard.
Figuring out how to recruit and retain a strong IT workforce is a perennial challenge for the government, and all three former CIOs testifying at Monday’s hearing suggested the scorecard should be evolved to incentivize agencies to give it more attention.
Both Powner and Spires suggested adding an IT workforce category to the scorecard. Agencies need plans explaining talent gaps and outline how development and recruiting efforts are being shaped to fill those gaps, they said.
Just as important as growing the workforce is cultivating a strong culture, according to the experts. Council, in her testimony, urged Congress to adopt a cultural readiness standard on the scorecard. Lack of cultural readiness inhibits progress, according to her testimony.
“The culture must be prepared to adopt new technology, not just endure it,” Council said.