Sen. Tom Carper: An IT champion by necessity

Carper's interest in IT is driven by concerns about government efficiency.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) wants the federal government to achieve better results for less money, and he believes IT is one way to reach that goal.

“A great tool to getting better results at a price we can afford is information technology done right,” Carper said during an interview with Federal Computer Week in May.

That belief has led Carper, Delaware’s senior senator, to spend the past few years championing IT-related issues on Capitol Hill, including cybersecurity and IT management reform.

IT might not be the juiciest area to oversee, but it speaks to Carper’s main objective: improving government performance and efficiency.

“IT issues tend not to be sexy issues, but [they’re] too important to be left to the bureaucracy,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman who also served as chairman of the House Government Reform Committee. Davis is now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte. 

Since the Obama administration’s release last December of its 25-point plan for reforming IT management, Carper has been the most visible lawmaker keeping an eye on the plan’s implementation. Through regular hearings and progress reports from the Government Accountability Office, Carper stays up-to-date with what’s going on with government IT.

Above all, he has developed relationships with those in the administration, such as Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, who can tell him what they need from Congress.

Experts say Carper is the ideal lawmaker to support and fight for improved government IT, given his experience as a two-term governor of Delaware and his moderate views.

Carper is “not a strong partisan,” Davis said. “He’s been known to work across party lines, and he’s a former governor, so he’s an implementer. That’s the kind of person you need in [IT].”

New IT bill

In April, Carper introduced legislation that would put elements of the administration’s IT management reform plan into law. 

The bill would require agency CIOs and the Office of Management and Budget to conduct systematic reviews of IT projects that are experiencing performance problems. It would also codify the federal IT Dashboard and increase congressional oversight of IT.

Carper proposed the bill — called the Information Technology Investment Management Act of 2011 (S. 801) — in response to a series of hearings he has held in the past three years to examine federal agencies’ management of costly high-risk IT projects.

“It’s clear that federal agencies are dropping the ball when it comes to deploying the right technology in a timely and cost-effective manner,” Carper said at the time of the bill’s release. “This legislation will provide the planning and oversight needed to reduce waste and improve the federal government’s information technology operations.”

Carper, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee, introduced the new bill the same day his subcommittee held a hearing on the progress of IT reform. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and fellow IT champions Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) co-sponsored the bill.

Carper said he proposed the legislation to make sure programs in place now will continue beyond the tenure of Kundra (who announced his resignation in June) and the current administration.

Carper said the bill includes baseline cost, schedule and performance overruns that would trigger reviews by agency CIOs or the federal CIO. The metrics would give executive branch officials insight into whether they should take dramatic action and perhaps pull the plug on a failing project, he added.

Gary Therkildsen, a federal fiscal policy analyst at OMB Watch, said he believes Carper’s bipartisan IT bill, which is awaiting committee review, has a good chance of passing in the current Congress. 

Carper is “able to use his moderate standing in the [Democratic] party to get initiatives through that other Democratic senators might fail at,” Therkildsen said.

Carper flexed those moderate credentials to help shepherd the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act to passage last year. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in January.

Under the GPRA Modernization Act, agencies must designate a chief operating officer and performance improvement officer with the primary task of pursuing cost savings through improved coordination of overlapping programs, among other activities.

Experience as governor

Before joining the Senate, Carper was governor of Delaware for eight years. He said the experience made him keenly aware that “historically, governance hasn’t always done information technology well.”

Carper said the state would hire and train people to work on IT projects, but then those people would be offered jobs in the private sector for a higher salary.

In addition, Carper said the state was often guilty of project creep.

“We would modify the scope of the project as we go along.… Put that together in state government with not being able to retain the best people to manage those projects and it was a recipe for projects that run over budget and don’t meet their anticipated timeline,” Carper said. “We suffer some of the same problems in the federal government.”

The IT challenges Carper encountered at the state level continue to influence his legislative and oversight decisions as a senator faced with a mounting federal deficit. Those challenges also shaped his personal philosophy of striving for better results for less money.

Mark Forman, co-founder of Government Transaction Services and former administrator of e-government and IT at OMB, said that to become the political champion of any issue, a lawmaker needs the support of his constituents. 

“Delaware is a fiscally conservative state, and its [residents] will vote for a member [of Congress] who goes after the return on investment for their tax dollars,” Forman said. Carper “knows that when he’s talking about [IT], he’ll have the backing of people from his state.”

Role in Congress 

Capitol Hill tends to work on a crisis-by-crisis basis when it comes to dealing with IT.

Lawmakers will create a “whole new piece of legislation based on [the latest] horror story, and the legislation is focused on systems instead of the root cause,” said Forman, who was previously a senior staffer for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

That’s why it’s crucial to have lawmakers like Carper who understand when a horror story is a one-off event and when it’s a systemic event, Forman said.

Carper said what he’s done with his “little subcommittee” is learn to capitalize on its effectiveness by partnering with OMB, GAO and inspectors general across the federal government.

In his role as chairman, Carper said he views the administration as a partner and tries to meet its needs through legislation or the appropriations process.

“By the same token, the administration has to know that we expect results,” he said.

He added that he doesn’t hold “gotcha hearings” but does try to spotlight problems that are being hidden.

Davis, who used to champion IT issues in the House, said the relationship a lawmaker has with the executive branch can’t just be about oversight. It must be conversational.

Congress “cannot impose rules on the administration that they don’t want,” Davis said. “Congress must serve to educate the administration on what innovations are going on and hold their feet to the fire when IT contracts get messed up.”

Carper has also maintained strong ties with IT stakeholders outside government.

Kevin Richards, senior vice president for federal governmental affairs at TechAmerica, said Carper has an open-door policy with the organization and has worked with it on many issues, including efforts to reform the Federal Information Security Management Act.

Carper has been “thoughtful working with our community and creating a dialogue and wanting to understand the issues,” Richards said. “He’s been a real mainstay with us.”

What’s next

As for the future of IT reform, Carper said he thinks Congress must address the issue of aligning the budget process with the pace of technology.

Former and current government officials predict that this will be the hardest aspect of the IT management reform effort. Carper acknowledged that it’s a difficult task but said OMB must consistently remind Congress that synchronizing the budget with IT acquisition is a more cost-effective approach.

Richards said TechAmerica is looking to Carper and other members of Congress to consider establishing revolving funds and/or rapid IT acquisition programs.

“These issues don’t seem glossy or exciting, but Tom Davis did a tremendous job in the House when he was there,” Richards said. “Sen. Carper has taken that baton and [run] with it in the Senate.”

The path to well-managed IT projects includes strong leadership and clear metrics, Carper said. He also said some projects must be allowed to fail.

Carper, who plans to run for another six-year term in 2012, said that however long he gets to serve in the Senate, he will continue to look in every nook and cranny of the federal government to determine how to get better results for less money.

“Information technology is not the end in itself [but] a means to the end,” Carper said. “Information technology done well can enable us to manage through this budget deficit and still [deliver] a modicum of service that our citizens need and deserve. Our challenge is to figure out how to make that happen.”

“God knows I’m not smart enough to do that on my own,” he added. “We’re all in this together.”