Federal Agencies Still Face Several Cloud Challenges, Watchdog Says

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Years after prior watchdog reports, agencies still have not fully implemented Government Accountability Office recommendations.

While federal agencies plan to spend billions of dollars on IT and cybersecurity efforts—many on commercial cloud services—they also face several hurdles according to a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday.

The GAO report identified four areas that agencies need to address to fully have the benefits of commercial cloud services, namely: “ensuring cybersecurity, procuring cloud service, maintaining a skilled workforce and tracking costs and savings.”

GAO noted that it is beneficial for agencies to use cloud computing to access their IT resources—like servers storing files—through the internet faster and cheaper than it would be to have these resources on their own.  

The watchdog stated that federal agencies have not fully implemented its previous improvement recommendations, despite the reports coming out several years ago.

For example, in regards to the challenge of ensuring cybersecurity, GAO reported in 2019 that while all of the 24 major federal agencies participated in the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, or FedRAMP—which gives a standardized approach to select and authorize the use of cloud services that meet security requirements for the federal government—many of the agencies still used non-FedRAMP authorized cloud services.

To provide a more detailed analysis, GAO examined four agencies and found that those chosen may not always: have the required information in their cloud system security plans; give a recap of security control test results in their security assessment reports; and identify required information in corrective action plans that should outline inadequacies in cloud services and how these will be addressed. However, GAO stated that one explanation for the agencies’ shortcomings may be that FedRAMP’s requirements and guidelines for control efforts are not always clear, and the security control monitoring process was limited. 

GAO recommended that the Office of Management and Budget, which established FedRAMP, hold agencies accountable. The watchdog also made 24 other recommendations to improve FedRAMP implementation. 

GAO noted that for cloud service procurement, service level agreements in contracts were often deficient. For example, in its 2016 report, the watchdog reviewed five agencies and found they did not include important elements in their agreements, primarily because of a lack of guidance to address critical practices. Specifically, the agencies may not have detailed what constitutes a security breach and responsibilities for agency notification; what was needed data and network management; and what are enforceable ramifications for agreement non-compliance. GAO recommended that four out of the five agencies develop guidance to completely incorporate these key practices and for the last agency to update its guidance to include these practices.

The watchdog stated that having and maintaining a skilled IT workforce is important for the government as it works to adopt cloud systems, and, GAO found workforce challenges at three agencies.

Specifically, the Coast Guard did not have a new cloud and related skills gap analysis for its workforce development strategy. The Department of Defense did not have a strategic communication plan for employees to help prepare them for changes after the migration to cloud services. Lastly, the Department of State’s plan did not include key elements like performance measures, targets and goals to monitor progress on clarifying job responsibilities and requirements to assist the cloud environment. GAO recommended that the agencies update their strategic plans to address their specific issues. 

GAO noted that while agencies have emphasized the importance of lowering acquisition and operating costs by buying services via the cloud, there are challenges related to tracking costs and savings. The watchdog reported in 2019 that agencies had difficulties with tracking and reporting cloud spending and savings information. For instance, agencies were using inconsistent data to calculate cloud spending and were unclear about costs they needed to track. The agencies also did not have a systematic way to track savings data, as OMB guidance did not require them to explicitly report such savings. Therefore, according to GAO, these figures are likely inaccurate. The watchdog recommended that OMB require agencies to explicitly report cloud savings and for agencies to create a duplicatable way to track cloud savings. 

In the report, for the most part, GAO did not break down all recommendations by agency, and it did not include agencies’ concurrence with these recommendations. However, agencies’ agreement with the recommendations in past reports was mixed.