Clinger-Cohen gets mixed marks after five years

In the five years since the Clinger-Cohen Act became law, it has revolutionized the way the government buys and manages technology. But the changes at federal agencies have been more evolutionary than revolutionary, say some government officials.

Implementation has been uneven across government, said David McClure, the General Accounting Office's associate director of governmentwide and defense information systems.

But Paul Brubaker, who helped draw up the bill, said agencies have all but failed to carry out the management reforms envisioned by the legislation. The government has made great strides in reforming how information technology is bought; however, many of the management reforms prescribed in the seminal IT management law have not been realized, said Brubaker, who recently left his post as Defense Department deputy chief information officer for a private-sector job.

Although 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 February 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," said Bru-baker, who spoke at a conference sponsored by the Potomac Forum Ltd. of Potomac, Md. 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 said 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.

Many of the problems that existed when the law was implemented still exist today, said Interior Department CIO Daryl White, co-chairman of the CIO Council's Capital Planning and IT Management Committee.

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

Although 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 make better decisions about how they buy and use technology, she said.

White noted that CIOs have not been given all of the tools necessary to do their job effectively. "We have all the responsibility," he said, but do not have all of the powers that were specified in the Clinger-Cohen Act.

The Agriculture Department's acting CIO, Ira Hobbs, said that despite the hurdles, there have been many accomplishments over the last five years. Agencies are working together on projects such as the FirstGov Web portal, he said, and "in spite of the leadership issues, we are getting things done."

Dorobek is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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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