Management

How FITARA can fix the federal government's IT problem

Wikipedia image; official image from his profile at USAF: Lieutenant General William Lord.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. William Lord argues that fewer CIOs with more authority would go a long way toward addressing federal IT woes.

Innovation was a major theme outlined in the federal IT budget priorities for 2014, which touched on plans to incorporate more big data, virtualization and cybersecurity initiatives into the public sector. Adopting new technologies (whether you’re a multinational corporation or a government agency) can be a drawn-out, difficult endeavor. Government IT programs, however, are plagued by a rather unique problem: a serious leadership crisis that impedes the implementation and success of IT initiatives.

This leadership crisis has not necessarily evolved from disparities or disputes among leadership. The problem is rooted in an excess of federal government CIOs, diluting the title itself and leaving no single CIO with the authority to effectively manage short- or long-term projects.

It seems that change might be on its way. Earlier this year the House of Representatives passed a bill, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, that aims to solve the government’s CIO surplus woes and untangle the public sector’s technology adoption process. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has approved its version of FITARA, which now awaits consideration by the full Senate.

FITARA would grant more authority to government agency CIOs and put in place a proper groundwork for managing intricate federal IT projects. 

The fundamentals proposed in FITARA directly target some of the historical problems with government IT operations. While FITARA’s ultimate fate is still unknown, these are issues the government must be prepared to act on either way, especially if it hopes to follow through on its latest tech ambitions.

-- Give decision-makers the authority to lead

Effective IT management depends on leaders who can arrive at the right decisions quickly, but the sheer number of CIOs at the federal level has prevented those holding the title from doing so. Currently, there are more than 250 CIOs on the federal government payroll. With decision-making decentralized, and thus constrained to individual departments, it has become nearly impossible to equip one CIO with enough power to successfully implement lasting initiatives. Moreover, it’s become virtually impossible to standardize those processes across agencies.

-- Address historical failures

Recent failures, such as the rocky HealthCare.gov rollout and the U.S. Air Force’s storied Expeditionary Combat Support System project, highlight the severity of the government’s IT leadership problem. Without the multitude of CIOs in the federal government, IT executives could regain a higher degree of control over their IT projects. With more control, CIOs would be able to better manage these contracts and timelines, and ensure stakeholder buy-in earlier in the game.

Creating tomorrow’s IT today

In order for the public sector to deliver on its plans for more cloud technology, increased data accessibility and a generally more open government, some rearranging should be in order.

FITARA could prove instrumental in bringing the U.S. government’s plans for tech innovation to fruition. On a deeper level, it would amplify CIOs’ involvement with strategic IT initiatives – a critical move, especially as IT becomes more important to the execution of government policy (see: Healthcare.gov).

More importantly, FITARA would finally address the overabundance of federal CIOs and their subsequent lack of control. Appointing fewer CIOs and granting each more authority would be a significant stride toward streamlined government IT, and a more innovative public sector.

The 2014 Federal 100

Get to know the 100 women and men honored this year for going above and beyond in federal IT.

Reader comments

Wed, Jul 2, 2014 Thomas

Realignments of government agency positions or reorganizations do little to solve internal systemic leadership and management problems. Legislating the CIO as the unilateral autocrat for all IT systems is not how business or government organizations operate and such an approach is likely to exclave rate the situation.

Wed, Jul 2, 2014

Do you seriously believe that "empowered" government CIOs would have kept Healthcare.gov or especially ECSS from blowing up? Dream on. I doubt they would be willing to ask the number 1 question needed to be asked: Is this IT project even doable, let alone in the desired time and schedule provided? For ECSS, after two major similar abject failures on smaller scale, who in the USAF thought attempting something hugely more complex would have a better chance of success? And what government CIO is going to tell a sitting President that his IT baby is ugly? As I said, dream on. Yet another attempt to attack symptoms of government IT problems, and not their root causes.

Tue, Jul 1, 2014

The problem of "too many CIOs" may be a problem within the service branches of the US military and DoD, but I think it is far less of a problem in civilian agencies. While CMS has its own CIO, it is hard to see how having healthcare.gov driven at the HHS level would have helped improve the outcome. This is not to say that substantial procurement reforms are in order. The government is still too prone towards awarding to the lowest cost provider, despite ample evidence that these providers have a correspondingly lower rate of success on complex projects. Hopefully the law has some truly useful reforms in that regard.

Tue, Jul 1, 2014 DC Fed Washington DC

In our agency we have an agency level CIO and "subordinate" component level CIOs who are ostensibly required because within each component that are substantial and unique mission requirements that are not effectively served by the centralized agency level CIO/OCIO. I participated in the legislative comment process for our component that was blended to an agency level comment through OMB to congress when FITARA was being formulate. I encountered substantial resistance to most of my observations about embracing FITARA from other and mostly larger components. Our component level CIOs manage mission related portfolios budgeted at levels from $40M annually to $1.5B annually and most of them felt their mission needs would be severely impacted by the centralization aspects of FITARA. Some of those fears may be well founded given the slow pace of the centralized decision making and the tendency to make broad brush lowest common denominator level decisions rather than highly focused mission based decisions. Some of those fears were also based on loss of status and prestige with the downgraded title and how that will negatively impact their ability to work with vendor communities. Again, maybe some truth there since no one pays any attention to a DCIO. Then there is the aspect of the FITARA based CIO being a presidential level appointment. That suggests political cronyism rather than having CIOs selected who are apolitical technologists who will last beyond the current administration. While there is a certain amount of political influence in the current selection process, we don't generally get CIOs on the basis of party affiliation or donor level. That is certainly a risk in the structure described by the current reading of FITARA. In summary, if FITARA passes, agencies will be slow to adopt it because it demolishes the current hegemony within each agency and most agencies don't want to fix what they don't think is broken. As well, I would not predict the types of positive outcomes LtG Lord suggests if the centralized CIO is "political". Rather the problems will be compounded by appointees who are short term figureheads, not the extraordinarily qualified technologists that we need for these positions.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above