House may weaken bill to give USDA CIO new authority

The House may curtail some of the unprecedented budget authority over departmental information technology spending that a Senate bill would give the Agriculture Department's chief information officer.

The USDA IT Reform and Year 2000 Compliance Act of 1998 would give USDA CIO Anne Thomson Reed control over a percentage of the department's $1.2 billion IT budget.

Each year the CIO would receive up to 10 percent of a USDA agency's or office's IT discretionary funds to pay for fixing the Year 2000 problem or for other IT-related work. The CIO also would have the power to approve the transfer and obligation of any funds used for IT, including hardware, software and services.

Although the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in May, passed the Senate last week, it still has some challenges to overcome. Nestled in the House appropriations bill that would fund the USDA for fiscal 1999 is language that would prevent the transfer of any funds to the CIO without prior approval from the appropriations committees. A vote in the House is anticipated this week.

"Our major opposition is that [the bill] goes and transfers appropriated funds. That's not their purview, that's ours," said a staff member on the House Appropriations Committee. "[Also], the USDA agencies are opposed to it." Requests for transfers of funds will be considered on a case-by-case basis, the source added. "[But] it's not like the CIO has no control."

As of late Friday, the authorizing and appropriations committees were trying to iron out their differences regarding the language in the appropriations bill, according to a Lugar spokeswoman.

Still, the USDA appropriations bill, like the Senate bill, does give the USDA CIO control over how IT funds are spent.

"Worst-Case Scenario"

"Worst-case scenario is that any [funding] transfer must be approved by Congress. If that's what it comes to, then we will march it to whoever we have to march it to," Reed said. The transfer of funds is only one aspect of the bill, she said. Even if some authority is lost, "there are other components that will have a tremendous impact on [improving] the management of IT in the department."

For example, the USDA CIO would be responsible for managing and designing an IT architecture. The bill also calls for each agency— with input from the department CIO— to appoint a CIO who would report to the agency administrator.

The bill gives the CIO a much-needed power boost, observers said. "It puts teeth into the CIO role by backing it up with money and authority," said Larry Allen, executive director of the Coalition for Government Procurement.

James Flyzik, CIO at the Treasury Department and vice chairman of the CIO Council, said the bill reflects the intent of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which required agencies to create CIO positions. The bill "clearly has the intent to make the CIO responsible and accountable for IT investments," he said. "If the CIO is going to be responsible and accountable, [that person] needs some authority to make better budget decisions."

In some agencies, such as Treasury, the CIO and the chief financial officer maintain a close relationship, Flyzik said. "I believe I do have a certain amount of authority to work with the CFO to make these decisions," he said.

However, some agency-level CIOs manage the IT budget and also manage IT resources, said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA Federal Systems and chairman of a task force that advised the government on how to craft the CIO position. The case should be the same for department-level CIOs as well, he said.

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