IT management reform: It is time for new legislation

Legislation alone will not fix federal IT management, Richard Spires argues, but there are fundamental problems that a new statute can help address.

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The significant troubles with the rollout of HealthCare.gov have put IT management issues front and center. In all my years in federal IT, I do not remember a president addressing the need for us to improve the way we buy and manage IT. Although born of crisis, it is refreshing to see this issue being addressed at the most senior levels of government.

So what is the appropriate response, and in particular, would IT reform legislation be of any real value? The Clinger-Cohen Act has been a bomb, so how can we ensure that this time it will be different?

Legislation alone will not fix all that is wrong with government IT management, but I am very supportive of legislation that would address fundamental structural problems. I appreciate the leadership of Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) in co-sponsoring the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. This bipartisan effort in the House is encouraging, and it has produced a bill that addresses key issues in IT management and acquisition.

The FITARA language is good, but there are a couple of areas that should be strengthened to ensure the legislation has maximum positive impact in supporting needed changes in IT management.

In my previous column on IT infrastructure, I laid out four obstacles to government’s ability to migrate to a modern, standard and appropriately consolidated IT infrastructure. That infrastructure would create the foundation for enabling IT to be more efficient and effective in supporting timely delivery of new capabilities for agencies’ mission and business customers, and it would improve the government's overall IT security posture.

How can legislation help? First, to help overcome these four obstacles, it is imperative that the agency CIO be given complete control over all IT infrastructure at his or her agency. It would be very helpful to have that authority codified in legislation. In addition, to address other areas of significant duplication and inefficiency as pointed out in multiple Government Accountability Office reports, the agency CIO should have control over standard collaboration systems, such as email, and business systems, including finance, human resources and other administrative functions. That would enable agency CIOs to aggressively consolidate duplicative business systems.

Overall, the combination of IT infrastructure, standard collaboration systems and business systems has been given the label “commodity IT.” The term is a misnomer because much of the expertise needed to modernize IT infrastructure or consolidate business systems is anything but commodity work. That does not, however, invalidate the need for agency CIOs to have authority over the infrastructure and business systems. It is best practice today and necessary for effective IT management.

Second, legislation should explicitly state that the agency CIO has the responsibility and authority to ensure that best practices in IT program management are being used throughout the agency on all IT programs, including mission-oriented IT. The agency CIO does not need to own all the programs, but he or she must ensure proper management of them. That approach would have helped to avert some of the critical failings of HealthCare.gov’s program management.

Finally, with regard to FITARA, the bill should specify what constitutes an IT acquisition cadre. Many in government think it just includes the program manager, contracting officer and contracting officer’s representative. For small, commodity IT acquisitions, that might be sufficient, but for large, complex programs, the IT acquisition cadre must be viewed much more expansively.

Dan Gordon, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said it well in a July 13 2011 Office of Management and Budget memo regarding IT acquisition cadres: “This will include government staff with expertise in program management, resource management, procurement, systems architecture and engineering, security, requirements analysis, test management, configuration management, and other disciplines, as necessary, to act in the best interest of the government, evaluate all aspects of the project, and ensure delivery of promised functionality.”

The most critical contributor to IT program success is the expertise and experience of the government team members who are running the program. IT management reform legislation should explicitly address that essential component.

Given the current focus on IT issues in government, now is the time for Congress to act and aggressively pursue legislation that can pass and be sent to the president. Given the president’s recent statements regarding the need for IT procurement reform, I hope he would be predisposed to support such legislation.

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