Should the National Labs be exempt from FITARA?

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Senate legislation to fund the Department of Energy includes a provision giving the National Labs a broad exemption from IT reform legislation that concentrates budget and hiring authority with department-level CIOs.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Energy and Water Development subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, originally inserted a provision exempting the entire Department of Energy from the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), and from some aspects of the Clinger-Cohen IT legislation. This was changed in committee to apply only to the National Labs, at the request of Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.)

Udall was an early backer of FITARA, and had co-sponsored standalone legislation to enhance CIO authorities in 2013. A Udall spokesperson told FCW that the senator remains a supporter of the law, and that narrowing the exemption from the entire department down to just the National Labs was a way to "make sure that as much of the agency was able to implement [FITARA] as possible."

The White House opposes the exemption. Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget, described the provision as "highly problematic" in a June 2 letter to Appropriations Committee chairman Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). A carve-out for the labs, Donovan wrote, would "eliminate the administration's ability to ensure information technology resources effectively support the Department's mission by reducing duplicative IT systems, implementing a comprehensive cybersecurity solution, and addressing other IT management issues that support the president's goal to deliver a Government that is more effective, efficient, and accountable."

At issue for the National Labs is autonomy for large-scale computing projects, in particular the supercomputing program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. This is not a new tension inside government. In late 2013, the Government Accountability Office reported that the Department of Energy reclassified supercomputer investments from IT to facilities. That took $368 million in annual spending off the publicly available IT dashboard.

More recently, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) had offered two amendments to the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill to carve out exemptions for supercomputing and the National Labs. His two amendments were ruled not in order, and not voted on in the House. Backers of the carve-out argued in a set of talking points obtained by FCW that FITARA would "create yet another layer of additional and unnecessary bureaucracy," and would "insert the CIO into the R&D of computer architectures to model and simulate the behavior of a nuclear warhead or the functioning of various types of nuclear reactor cores, areas that are clearly beyond the scope of expertise of CIOs."

That concern would seem not to apply to new Energy Department CIO Michael Johnson, who worked as a computer engineer and intelligence analyst at Sandia National Laboratories. According to his bio, Johnson has expertise in, among other things, computer architecture and nuclear weapons complex modeling.

Lydia Dennett, an investigator for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, noted in a blog post that "one of the main intents of the FITARA is to ensure that the agency CIO position has the authority and prestige to attract applicants the with required subject-matter expertise," and that "exempting the national labs from the law would only serve to continue the disconnect between agency leadership and IT programs as well as to make the Energy Department's CIO position unattractive to talented individuals."

POGO sees some of the pressure as coming from contractors and the supercomputing industry. "There has been a longstanding tradition for contractors running the labs to be averse to any kind of oversight, particularly this sort of added look at how they're spending their money," Dennett told FCW.

The Department of Energy declined to comment on pending legislation.

Dave Powner of the Government Accountability Office questioned whether the time was ripe for carve-outs, given that the law had yet to be put into practice. "Let's see how FITARA gets implemented and not make any major moves prematurely," he told FCW. "That would be our preference."

The Udall spokesperson, meanwhile, noted that it is still early days for the fiscal 2016 appropriations process. "A lot of this is going to get worked out between now and the time this moves," the spokesperson said. The hope in Udall's office is that something will be worked out administratively that is satisfactory to OMB, congressional backers of FITARA and the labs, without the need for legislation.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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