Executive suite: Putting the Clinger-Cohen Act in perspective

Mantra of ‘improved operations, reduced costs’ brought a decade of real reform to federal IT

It’s been nearly a decade since Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.) and Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) put the finishing touches on the landmark legislation, the Information Technology Management Reform Act. Better known now as the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, this legislation dramatically changed the strategy and governance of federal IT.

The act sought to remedy mounting deficiencies in the federal IT world. These included systems overruns, poor accountability and a notorious lack of attention to the business processes that should be the basis for IT investments. When President Clinton signed the legislation on Feb. 10, 1996, the signal was sent that the Wild West days of federal IT were over.

There are many reasons to applaud the CCA. First and foremost, Clinger-Cohen changed how agencies regarded IT. Instead of viewing IT as a customized mix of technology specs and architectural spaghetti maps, the virtual bumper sticker of CCA, “Improved Operations, Reduced Costs,” became the mantra for federal IT decisions.

Now, federal agency heads ask, “How is IT helping to improve the mission? What value am I getting for my IT investments?” Federal CIOs, in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget and Congress, routinely review the acquisition of large-scale systems and provide accountability for IT investments.

CCA also gave federal CIOs a seat at the management table. By requiring that they report to their agency heads, CCA catapulted federal CIOs to the executive ranks where they have become visible and influential members of agency executive teams. In addition, CCA led to the creation of the Federal CIO Council, which today is an important forum for developing governmentwide IT policies, standards and programs.

Clinger-Cohen was a triumph of bipartisanship. Members of Congress, federal IT and acquisition executives, industry leaders and nonprofit and academic experts collaborated to evaluate the state of federal IT and propose enduring solutions. Luckily, the nature of IT is such that, with the exception of jobs-related issues such as outsourcing, policy and performance issues typically transcend partisan politics. Sadly, this bipartisan legislative legacy has not continued to progress as well as the reform of federal IT over the last decade.

The law was also notable for the spectrum of IT issues it addressed. In addition to tackling areas such as information security, architecture and acquisition, CCA included guidance on IT workforce issues, capital planning and performance-based management. CCA broadened the IT perspectives of federal CIOs and their executive colleagues. In the current environment of budget cuts, this full-spectrum approach has been instrumental in accomplishing broad-based initiatives such as e-government and cybersecurity.

Lastly, CCA continued to reform IT acquisition. By rescinding the decades-old Brooks Act, CCA devolved federal IT acquisition control from the General Services Administration to agencies, making them more accountable for their IT investments. CCA paved the way for laws that streamlined IT acquisition processes and fostered performance-based acquisitions.

In retrospect, have we eliminated the deficiencies that were the genesis for CCA? No, but we have made progress. CCA is now embedded in our IT DNA, strengthening our ability to provide better performance for federal information systems and programs.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton of McLean, Va. She can be reached at [email protected].

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