A decade ago, Clinger-Cohen brought reforms
But managing large federal IT projects remains an imperfect and risky business
- By David Perera
- Jun 20, 2005
The Clinger-Cohen Act caused a rupture so deep in the federal information technology world that a decade later, veterans of the IT management reform effort divide history into "before" and "after."
Before Clinger-Cohen became a law, federal acquisition procedures could not keep pace with rapid changes in technology, and IT procurement disasters were common.
"We were determined to bring IT policy kicking and screaming out of the 19th century and into the 20th century," said former Rep.William Clinger (R-Pa.), referring to the law that carries his name.
"The whole system just seemed like it was out of sync," said Paul Brubaker, who, as a staffer for Sen.William Cohen (R-Maine), had a large role in crafting the act's language.
But almost 10 years since its enactment, Clinger-Cohen has not eliminated all high profile, costly IT disasters. The FBI's $170 million Virtual Case File is the most recent example. Other projects, such as the Internal Revenue Service's systems modernization effort, have come close to collapsing despite Clinger-Cohen's reforms, which leads to a couple of questions: Has Clinger-Cohen achieved its potential? And if not, why not?
"In terms of the smaller efforts, it's been very successful," Clinger said. But for larger IT projects, "I don't think we're there yet."
Federal spending on IT now tops $60 billion a year and is likely to continue to climb.
Clinger-Cohen replaced the General Services Administration as the hub of IT project oversight with a process known as Capital Planning and Investment Control (CPIC). Federal agencies and their newly created chief information officers became responsible for IT projects' success. The law put the Office of Management and Budget at the center of the new process. OMB's review of agencies' business cases for proposed and existing IT spending, presented in Exhibit 300 documents, is pivotal in that process.
In the past 10 years, OMB has "become more of the disciplined budget authority watchdog that it was meant to be," said Tony Valletta, who helped implement the law at the Defense Department when he was the Pentagon's CIO.
IT projects now receive more scrutiny than they did before Clinger-Cohen, partly because OMB can turn off the spigot of program funding. "Ten, 15 years ago, when we used to get that threat, nobody took them seriously," Valletta said.
But after Clinger-Cohen formalized requirements for overseeing federal IT spending, some agencies learned to game the system.
"We have some very well-written Exhibit 300s," said Glenn Schlarman, information policy branch chief in OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. "It's almost a term paper," he said, adding that "some organizations are hiring term paper-writing organizations" to complete their Exhibit 300s.
OMB recently warned agencies against submitting copycat business cases. Some agencies paste language that earns one IT project a top score from OMB's analysts into other business cases.
For all its reach into the agencies, however, OMB remains a small organization.
"I would like to see the IT branch at OMB have 20 people, not 10," Schlarman said. Brubaker called the agency grossly understaffed and said it will likely remain that way. No commander in chief wants to "be presiding at a time when there is a significant increase in the size of the Executive Office of the President," he said. After all, OMB "is a political machine."
But as OMB's authority over IT investments increased under the new law, agencies' responsibilities did, too. "The Clinger-Cohen Act empowered the agencies, gave them both the tools such as CPIC and the CIOs and the responsibility to control their own destiny," said Bruce McConnell, Schlarman's predecessor at OMB and now president of McConnell International.
But many CIOs are still fighting for that elusive seat at the table. "Let's face it. The CIOs are completely misnamed," McConnell said. "They continue to be chief information technology officers, not chief information officers."
Being thought of as a technology wonk means being locked away in the backroom while the cool kids set the agenda. For the most part, CIOs are not "integrally related to managing the core mission in the agencies," McConnell said. It became news when FBI Director Robert Mueller announced that his CIO had bureauwide approval authority over IT spending.
But if federal CIOs have different amounts of authority, it is not because of a flaw in Clinger-Cohen, said Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for e-government and IT. It's up to agency leaders to find the best way to manage their resources. "It's what works best for the management structure within that department," she said.
Valletta said it is time to amend Clinger-Cohen to give CIOs more institutional power. But even though he is not alone in that belief, there appears to be no momentum behind that idea.
Other institutional pressures besides CIOs' authority stand in the way of a perfect post-Clinger-Cohen world, industry experts say. Massive projects with years-long implementations are antithetical to best IT practices, but "the really large companies have communicated to their shareholders that they're going to reach certain growth targets, and in order to do that, they need those billion-dollar wins," Brubaker said.
Few of those factors seem destined to disappear. Looking forward, federal IT officials say they are focused on improving procedures rather than amending laws. "The way we change things is not just by changing laws; we need to follow through," said Clay Johnson, OMB's deputy director for management.
Clinger-Cohen's unfulfilled promise is better execution of the law, Schlarman said, "While we're planning for the right things, we just aren't implementing them," he said.
Better management would be a big step in the right direction, Brubaker said. Problems usually aren't revealed until it's too late. Real-time indicators and better business fundamentals inside agencies would help the government do a better job of monitoring what it is buying, he said.
And sometimes nothing beats a close reading of the law. "If the agencies and people in industry would just read the legislation and just read the report language, they'd get a sense of what it is that they're supposed to be doing," Brubaker said.
David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.