Procurement Reform

FITARA: More than a tweak, less than a revolution

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Could a new procurement reform bill revolutionize the way the federal government does information technology procurement, or is it just another update to the policies established by the Clinger-Cohen Act in 1996?

The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act passed out of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee in March with unanimous backing. Sponsored by committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and longtime committee member Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the bill grants budget authority to agency chief information officers, turns the CIO position into a presidential appointment, and creates a new inter-agency office within the Office of Management and Budget to develop standards and best practices for government-wide procurement.

In addition, FITARA provides detailed advice for achieving cost savings in a variety of areas, notably data center consolidation, cloud computing, and the use of government-wide licenses for software. It would establish a centralized price list for IT infrastructure and common applications and create a system of reviewing new IT contracts for possible duplication.

"If you authorize CIOs, then by definition, the term should mean something," Issa said when previewing the legislation back in December. "When you have hundreds of them for 24 major agencies, you really don't have chiefs. That's the most important thing that this bill is intended to do – to redefine the term 'chief' to mean 'the chief.'"

Giving agency CIOs budgetary authority would be "a sea change," said Van Hitch, who spent more than nine years as the CIO of the Justice Department, and is currently senior advisor to Deloitte Consulting. "Most CIOs are in a position where not only do they not control all the IT dollars," Hitch told FCW, "but in some cases they don't have visibility into how those dollars are spent on a real-time basis, and therefore they can't control them that well."

Shifting the budgetary authority to an agency CIO would be a huge cultural shift, Hitch said. "Each of the cabinet agencies has big bureaus and they all have separate appropriations. If the CIO does not have a direct line to the IT organizations of those bureaus and does not control their budget, CIO is left to persuasion and camaraderie to try to get cooperation. That works sometimes, but ultimately, it pays to have the authority," he said.

The Clinger-Cohen Act was a sweeping influential piece of legislation that changed the way federal IT acquisition was done on a number of fronts. It established the government CIO as a c-suite executive with ranging influence over IT management, security, information collection, statistical policy and coordination, records management, privacy, and more. It centralized the role of OMB as the coordinator of government IT acquisition, which had previously been run out of the General Services Administration.

The change implemented by Clinger-Cohen was "seminal," said Hitch. But more clarifying legislation like the E-Government Act of 2002, which established the federal CIO, and the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 came along because, Hitch said, Clinger-Cohen gave a lot of latitude to agencies in how they implemented reforms.

The initial draft of the bill was tweaked, in part due to comments from industry. Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president at the trade group TechAmerica, which represents some of the largest IT vendors, described FITARA as "the most significant IT acquisition legislation since the Clinger-Cohen era." He told FCW that the new legislation is "not as much of a watershed as Clinger-Cohen," but that it has the potential to "transform the way government approaches acquisition."

Hodgkins supports giving CIOs budget authority but said he has some concerns about other aspects of FITARA, including planned reductions in contract vehicles, legislative language about use of open source software solutions, and the set of specific requirements for measuring efficiencies from data center consolidations. Overall, industry is adopting a wait-and-see approach that is both conciliatory and skeptical. TechAmerica and other IT trade groups told the House Oversight committee in a March 19 letter that, "a number of provisions appear to be redundant and duplicative because they restate authorities or responsibilities that are already provided elsewhere in statute."

The appropriations process is perhaps the chief impediment to FITARA's potential as a change agent. Rep. Issa has suggested that as much as one quarter of the annual federal IT budget of $80 billion is lost due to waste, duplication and abandoned projects. FITARA seeks to achieve savings by streamlining the government's use of software and services, and running multiple agencies on single contract vehicles, and using government-wide software licenses for commodity IT products. But the reality is that the money is not budgeted in a way that allows agencies to leverage the full power of the government in acquisition.

"Appropriation is done by program area," Hitch pointed out. "It's not always obvious where the IT dollars are." This makes enterprise-wide licenses very difficult and time consuming to negotiate, said Hitch, who put together a few such deals while at the Justice Departments.

"The money is not appropriated that way," to give a CIO flexibility to obligate money for maximum savings, he said. "The money exists in pockets around the agency."

Hodgkins agreed, saying the appropriations process makes it "challenging for agencies to think about enterprise level horizontal shared services."

As of this writing, there are no plans to bring FITARA to the House floor for a vote. The Obama administration has signaled that they think they can work within the legislative authority of Clinger-Cohen to carve out clear lines of responsibility for agency CIOs, as indicated in a 2011 OMB memo on CIO authority. With so many high-profile legislative issues in play, including dueling budgets, immigration, and cybersecurity, it's not clear there is currently the political oxygen to support acquisitions reform. In 1996, Clinger-Cohen was advanced as part of a larger Defense appropriations package. If FITARA has a legislative future, it would probably have to follow a similar path as its influential predecessor.

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