GAO's director of IT management issues is a tough critic, but one who's top concern is finding ways to fix the problems.
Dave Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s director of IT management issues, is an auditor who knows how to do the work he’s charged with overseeing. Although he has clocked nearly 15 years at GAO, Powner also did a stint as an IT executive at Qwest Communications during the heady days of broadband expansion in the first wave of internet adoption.
Powner started at Qwest (which has since merged with CenturyLink) as an auditor but moved into a managerial job working on the telecommunications provider’s growing business in DSL connectivity. He remembers the era of telecom deregulation and rapid internet growth as an exciting time.
“We had 90-day deliverables — about 30 systems we had to change every 90 days from onboarding to billing to provisioning of the services,” he said. “It was a very fast-paced environment.”
If that sounds a little like the agile development methodology Powner preaches in congressional hearings and oversight reports, that’s no accident.
“We called it RAD for rapid application development,” Powner said. “When you look at agile, it’s a new name for something that has been around for awhile, when you look at the private sector.”
In addition to firsthand experience, Powner also brings a welcome collegiality to his work. He is passionate about building relationships with CIOs and helping agencies move away from legacy IT. Although the GAO auditor can sometimes be an adversarial figure, Powner seeks to build bridges. At a recent House hearing on IT at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Powner and acting VA CIO Rob Thomas were practically finishing each other’s sentences at the witness table — an extraordinary sight for seasoned observers of congressional oversight.
At the same time, Powner’s philosophy is not completely about holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” For readers of GAO reports, the most interesting content is often found in the reply comments. Even when there is broad agreement over the big goals, officials will typically challenge the auditors in a few areas. For Powner, that conflict is healthy.
“You want agreement at a high level, but if you don’t have a few disagreements, maybe you’re not pushing hard enough,” he said. “A few little disagreements are healthy from an audit perspective.”
Powner spent much of 2016 helping agencies implement the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. Working with congressional committees, he developed a report card methodology for tracking how well agencies were doing at giving CIOs authority and creating visibility into IT spending and their progress on goals related to data center consolidation, complete with letter grades.
“With the grades, knowing that every six months something was coming helps with the accountability,” Powner said. “We were quite successful in 2016.”