Election could affect IT programs

New leadership could alter Congress’ focus on data, health privacy and security

If Democrats gain control of one or both houses of Congress next month, agencies should be aware of what they have in store.

Right out of the gate next year, the new leaders would likely conduct hearings and investigations over why Republicans didn’t do a better job of overseeing important agency programs, such as data security and large problematic IT contracts, congressional observers said.

“If there is even a hint of impropriety in contract fulfillment or whether systems did what they were supposed to do — anything that involves Congress looking at the executive branch will be open for scrutiny,” said Stan Collender, managing director for Qorvis Communications of Washington and a federal budget expert.

The IRS Business Systems Modernization contract, led by Computer Sciences Corp., is the most egregious example, he said, although IRS has put that program on track.

FBI investigation

Another likely project to come under the microscope is the FBI’s Virtual Case File management system, led by Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a recently created Washington think tank. The Justice Department spent $104 million before pulling the plug in 2005. Democrats will want to know where the money went, Atkinson added.

Mandating more privacy controls also would get a boost after the flood of data breaches reported this year, most strikingly the theft of a notebook PC containing the data of millions of veterans. The incident made data management an oversight issue, said Bob Woods, president of Topside Consulting and a former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

“It’s become a political issue that the average person can understand. I think that’s going to be juicy political meat,” Woods said.

Democrats likely would seek stronger privacy enforcement over health data use under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. They will be cautious about implementing electronic health records without credible security and privacy, said Peter Swire, an Ohio State University law professor and a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. Swire was chief counselor for privacy in the Clinton administration.

“To date, we have 20,000 HIPAA privacy complaints but zero civil enforcement actions by the Health and Human Services Department,” he said.

Democrats also would likely support a federal inspector general for IT issues, Swire said. “Government IT has become so important and there are so many possible privacy and security problems that it makes sense to have greater accountability,” he said.

E-government and cross-agency initiatives should fare somewhat better as well, observers said. Democrats would make sure that government is user-friendly and works efficiently, since they are known as the party of government, Atkinson said. Democrats would support efficiency because it is a way to do more with less so they don’t have to cut core programs that they care about, such as housing and health care, Atkinson said.

Funding for e-government and lines of business initiatives, however, would not change, Atkinson said.

Marking territory

“Congress as a whole has been an impediment to the process and the shared-services movement,” Atkinson said.

The Appropriations Committee, whether it’s Republican- or Democrat-led, does not like OMB usurping its spending authority, Woods added.

“It’s an institutional fight, not a partisan fight,” he said.

Experts said Democrats would not embrace one aspect of the President’s Management Agenda—competitive sourcing, which encourages competition with the private sector for some jobs. “They would be skeptical of that and look more closely at cost savings,” Atkinson said.

Whether the Republicans retain their leadership or Democrats take control, it’s going to be by a very narrow margin, said Phil Bond, president and chief executive of the Information Technology Association of America of Arlington, Va.

“What that means is that the moderates in both parties are going to be power brokers,” he said.

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