Procurement Reform

FITARA: Son of Clinger-Cohen?

Alan Balutis larger version

The House recently approved a version of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) as an amendment to the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. The $638 billion authorization act was passed on June 14 with a 315-108 vote, and the voting was not simply split along party lines.

FITARA got similar bipartisan support: It was reported out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March by voice vote and was sponsored by committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and key minority member Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

Back in the mid-1990s, a similar bill emerged — the IT Management Reform Act (ITMRA), more commonly known as the Clinger-Cohen Act. It was heralded as one of the most consequential pieces of modern IT and acquisition reform. It, too, passed as an amendment to the NDAA, under the sponsorship of Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) and Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.).

At this time, no counterpart bill to FITARA exists in the Senate. But only a few days before the House vote, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on reducing duplication and improving results in federal IT. The testimony and the senators’ questions suggested that the upper chamber’s endorsement might be forthcoming.

OMB’s general counsel routinely opposes bills that suggest how the executive branch should be organized.

The vision for ITMRA in 1996 was to grant CIOs more authority, have them to report to the agency’s top leader and give them a seat at the management table, said David Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Senate committee’s ranking member, asked: “If we’re not going to give CIOs the authority to do what they need to do, why bother even having CIOs?”

So what happens next? Here’s a prediction: The Office of Management and Budget will oppose the FITARA amendment. An early indication has been the lukewarm testimony and negative asides by U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel during a June 11 Senate hearing and in earlier House hearings. For example, VanRoekel testified that “the Clinger-Cohen Act actually begins by saying, ‘The heads of agencies shall….’ It’s very specific about empowering the heads of agencies, the secretary, the deputy secretary, chief of operations, etc., to take ownership for the IT resources and to focus on that.”

So in Pontius Pilate fashion, the man effectively acting as deputy director for management at OMB absolves the management arm of the White House from any responsibility in ensuring that this act of Congress is properly implemented. ITMRA, of course, also goes on to specify the authorities of the CIO, reporting relationships, status as either a political or career employee, and so on. And if there is any doubt about the intent of the legislation, the accompanying report language makes clear what that intent was in terms of how it should have been implemented.

OMB opposed the Clinger-Cohen Act back in the 1990s and negotiated fiercely to water it down and weaken it. Indeed, at the time, OMB succeeded in striking the creation of the job VanRoekel now holds. Why? Because OMB’s general counsel routinely opposes bills that suggest how the executive branch should be organized — whether the restructuring is a good idea or not. But the latest NDAA will be a hard bill to oppose or change, which is presumably why Issa attached FITARA to it.

So the real test might come after enactment, when OMB and major agencies will have to implement the act. That, as I have argued several times before, is where Clinger-Cohen “failed” — a good piece of legislation undercut by poor follow-up.

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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Reader comments

Fri, Jul 12, 2013 Mark Bethesda

My good friend Alan is right to look at Steve's testimony to the Senate in figuring out how the Administration might react. That said, the essence of the issue is not whether FITARA gives more power to CIOs than Clinger-Cohen. The issue is the change in role (backwards to the Paperwork Reduction Act IT guidance) that describes the senior agency/dept IT executive as the Director of Information Resources Management. The change intended by Congress in the Clinger Cohen Act was that the Executive Branch embrace the business transformation potential of IT disruptions. The government needed executives who were accountable for modernizing government (not controlling budgets or IT projects). While that need remains, I am not sure that many (if any) Secretaries or Agency heads are able to understand how to modernize. Like many old school companies, both OMB and Congress seem to agree that the CIO cannot be the catalyst for modernizing their agency, and should be relegated to the Director of IRM role. The biggest issue here is the loss of legal accountability for improving agency management and mission performance through effective application of technology. At least OMB has a proposal of using bureau CIOs for that purpose...the Hill has none so far.

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