Is it time to revisit Clinger-Cohen?

Rep. Darrell Issa, with support from a prominent Democrat, continues to push legislation to update the 1996 law that tackled government IT acquisition and management and created the CIO position.

Rep. Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa argues that the time is right to revamp the law that created the CIO position and set IT procurement processes for agencies.

The time has come to revise the framework that dictates the acquisition process for federal IT, according to two lawmakers in what might be a rare moment of bipartisan agreement.

Kicking off the Dec. 3 Nextgov Prime event in Washington, D.C., Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) said the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 should be revamped to better serve the federal government’s technology acquisition needs. The law created the CIO role and has spurred many discussions over the years about whether it is necessary for CIOs to have budget control.

In September, Issa released a draft of a bill intended for the next Congress, called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. It would grant more power to agency CIOs to control the technology government acquires while also promoting strategic sourcing.

But some industry groups say certain parts of Issa’s bill should be modified to gain the support from the private sector. In a Nov. 30 letter to Issa, TechAmerica, BSA | The Software Alliance, the Coalition for Government Procurement and the Information Technology Industry Council wrote that the current version of FITARA could cause confusion for federal procurement officials. Instead of streamlining the acquisition process, these new provisions could instead stall it, the groups said.

The letter also states the group supports the goal of government becoming more sophisticated as a customer of IT, but calls for investments in the acquisition workforce and the consolidation of governmentwide and multiagency purchasing agreements that the groups believe to be unnecessary.

“We truly appreciate the effort of Chairman Issa and his staff and look forward to continuing to discuss our serious concerns,” Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for global public sector at TechAmerica, said in a Nov. 30 statement. “Ensuring that the federal acquisition system is working as it should be, the government has access to the latest innovation and that taxpayers are getting the best value for their money is the top priority for all of us.”

Meanwhile, Issa said he and Connolly are both in a position to see the long-term effects of Clinger-Cohen and how it could be improved.

“This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Clinger-Cohen, which was passed before either of us was in Congress, needs an overhaul for one most important reason, and that is: If you authorize CIOs, then by definition the term should mean something. When you have hundreds of them for 24 agencies, you really don’t have chiefs.”

Issa’s bill intends to redefine the term “chief” to mean “the chief,” Issa stressed. “There are plenty of ... people controlling at the lower levels, but there has to be one responsible individual that holds their staff [accountable] at all levels regardless of their titles or pay grade. We don’t have that in the federal government.”

“If something goes wrong, you can have in one agency 20 people who bear the name ‘chief,’ but none has budget authority,” he added.

In praising Issa’s draft proposal, Connolly acknowledged the long road ahead, in particular in the areas of the acquisition workforce.

“I think we have a lot of work to do; I’m hopeful and I think Chairman Issa’s draft bill gives us a framework that we’re still working on and I’m thanking you for including a number of us in that effort,” he said. “But we have a long way to go in making the federal government a lot more efficient and its management of IT resources, and the criticality of that when we look at the fiscal situation.”
   
In a separate interview, Connolly told FCW that he intends to be a chief co-sponsor when Issa introduces the measure next year.

Every year, $80 billion is funneled into government technology, $20 billion of which is spent on wasteful projects, Issa said. Those projects have a ripple effect and add hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. “I would throw that $20 billion into the mix if it meant the rest of the government was efficient and effective and had the kinds of information and accountability that, let’s say, Walmart insists on for its equipment,” Issa said. “If you’re a Walmart today ... you have complete transparency and your vendors have complete transparency as to where the information is, where the incoming goods are.”

Issa’s bill also aims to fix the contentious issue of budget authority for CIOs. Some have argued that it would allow CIOs to get things done faster and more efficiently; others say plenty can be done without it. Issa said what is needed is one person who has the power to stop a program and tell Congress, “This is my $2 billion, and I’m telling you, we need to move it here and there.”

That person does not have to be the most technologically savvy individual, Issa added, or even the best manager, but rather someone who recognizes when a program is struggling or when it has an opportunity to succeed.

“Chairman Issa and I share a lot in common on this subject, and I very much look forward to working with him on trying to find a statutory framework to move forward,” Connolly said, adding that the government faces a host of challenges with respect to technology, including addressing such issues as how well the existing resources are being used.

“Whatever happens with the fiscal cliff [or] a contracted federal presence over the next 10 years to get the debt down ... then technology becomes more important than ever,” he added. “Can I deploy technology in such a way that I more than make up for the aggregate resources we are using? That is the essential task for every federal agency.”

In many ways, the federal government is lagging behind the private sector, Connolly said. “We’re less nimble, and it takes us a lot more time to make decisions when we see something isn’t working,” he said. “And it takes us a lot more time than the private sector to pull back and acknowledge a mistake and move on and not stick with it and waste even more money.”

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