Government failing at IT reform

Text of the Clinger-Cohen Act

Five years after the Clinger-Cohen Act became law, agencies have all but failed to carry out the management reforms envisioned by the legislation, one of the key authors of the bill said.

Although the government has made great strides in reforming how information technology is bought, many of the management reforms prescribed in the seminal IT management law have not been realized, said Paul Brubaker, who recently left his post as the Defense Department deputy chief information officer for a private-sector job.

While he largely praised the IT procurement reforms, giving them a "B or B-minus," Brubaker was more critical of the management provisions. "I'd give it an F-plus," said Brubaker, who was a staff member for then-Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) when the Clinger-Cohen Act was approved in 1996. "There are some pockets of genius out there," but they are the exception.

"We're not making the hard decisions based on business analysis," Brubaker said. The failures are largely due to inadequate leadership and an entrenched culture, he said, adding that in many cases, agency CIOs lack the authority to carry out the provisions of the law as intended.

The Clinger-Cohen Act instructed agencies to treat technology as an investment and that agencies should tie those investments to actual results. In addition to calling for agencies to appoint CIOs, the act requires agencies to create capital planning processes and architectures that guide IT buys. Other officials gave agencies mixed reviews on Clinger-Cohen implementation, although most said Brubaker's assessment was overly critical.

David McClure, the General Accounting Office's associate director of governmentwide and defense information systems, said the F-plus assessment was "probably too harsh." Progress is "extremely uneven," but he said that there have been signs that agencies are taking the provisions to heart.

Jasmeet Seehra, a policy analyst for the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, gave the government a "gentlemen's C" overall, and acknowledged that progress has been patchy.

While nearly every organization has a CIO, that person's role has not yet been fully integrated within all organizations, Seehra said, and nearly every agency has capital planning processes in place. But many agencies are still not using those processes to made better decisions about how they buy and use technology, she said.

The Agriculture Department's acting CIO, Ira Hobbs, was more positive. Agencies are working together on projects such as the FirstGov Web portal, she said, and "in spite of the leadership issues, we are getting things done."

The officials spoke Tuesday at a conference — sponsored by the Potomac Forum of Potomac, Md. — examining the Clinger-Cohen Act.

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine,, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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