Ammon: Congress needs to open its purse

Poor federal security grades reflect congressional indifference

Federal officials experienced a mixture of elation and disappointment recently when lawmakers handed out grades for compliance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002. Government agencies deserve credit because so many of them earned passing grades despite scarce resources for FISMA and other information security initiatives.

FISMA is a critically important law that promotes a framework for protecting the government's vast information resources. However, the elaborate evaluation and grading process associated with FISMA compliance, coupled with minimal resources for achieving compliance, is equivalent to grading students for a course but refusing to provide them with textbooks.

The secure, efficient management of government information is vital to national security and economic success. Anyone involved in information security understands that investing even limited resources can yield great returns. For FISMA, however, those resources have not been forthcoming, and for some lawmakers to dismiss agency officials' complaints as whining is simply naïve.

Adequate resources are essential, but they are only one of several factors that could strengthen FISMA and the evaluation process. FISMA law and guidance need to distinguish among three types of information systems: new and planned systems, those that will be usable in the long run and those that are scheduled for rapid replacement.

Chief information officers or chief information security officers (CISOs) with limited means should put those resources into systems that they expect to use for at least three years. Systems destined for replacement require more substantial investments to secure. But under FISMA, failing to secure all systems, regardless of their status, puts an agency at risk of receiving a poor evaluation and grade.

In a world of unlimited resources, securing all systems might be possible. But we do not live in such a world. Prioritizing information assets and systems would improve the law and the evaluation process.

FISMA's aggregated reporting requirements, combined with inconsistent compliance strategies, also create problems for CIOs or CISOs responsible for managing information security within a department.

FISMA constitutes the most comprehensive effort in the public or private sector for protecting and securing information assets. The law continues to evolve, and its importance is growing.

It is a favorable sign that Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and a primary author of FISMA, has recognized the significance of effective FISMA implementation by moving responsibility for the act and related information management issues from a subcommittee to the full committee.

Many industry and government officials welcome this decision and hope it portends much-needed FISMA oversight. Many of us also look to Davis' leadership for educating his congressional colleagues about the importance of providing even modest funding for this crucial law. n

Ammon is president and co-founder of NetSec Government Solutions, which MCI recently purchased.

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.


  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

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

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group