Embracing failing grades and moving forward

Shutterstock image (by connel): businessman taking a step forward.

Last month, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act scorecard gave low marks to just about every agency surveyed.

But officials say it is part of the process of getting better.

"I want to stress [that] all the data that we used in the scorecards were provided by the agencies," said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), chairman of the committee's IT Subcommittee, at a Dec. 16 event hosted by Nextgov. He added that the "shocking" low scores were a matter of fact, not subjective judgment.

"I got three Fs and a C, so maybe I should start," Transportation Department CIO Richard McKinney quipped. "I didn't do too good."

DOT received a D overall. No agency earned an A, and only two earned overall Bs.

But McKinney, who has recently attracted attention for freezing his department's IT spending until he receives plans from DOT's component agencies, said he opted not to argue with the low scores because the central point -- that there's plenty of work to be done -- would still stand.

Quibbling over grades would amount to asking, "Are we 500 miles from where we need to be or 400 miles from where we need to be?" McKinney said.

"I accept the scorecard in the spirit with which it was put together," he said, adding that it is more of a baseline than a condemnation.

Dave Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office, characterized DOT's data center consolidation score as "a good F," McKinney said, because it illustrated the fact that DOT had not met a savings estimation that his predecessor had set somewhat arbitrarily, and it highlighted a broader financial reporting problem.

As a CIO, "I don't know my unit cost," he said. "When we're asked to make projections or report savings, I feel like I don't have a good way to be honest."

He advocated standardizing financial reporting to better enable longitudinal analysis of spending and savings.

"If I don't get anything else done with FITARA, I want to get that done," McKinney said. "I want to get to where the Department of Transportation really understands how it spends its money. I really want to be honest about it. I'm not trying to run away from the data."

FITARA might be helpful, but "even full empowerment of the CIO is not enough," said Paul Tibbits, deputy CIO for architecture, strategy and design in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA scored a C overall on the FITARA scorecard.

"Empowering the CIOs so they have all the authorities still leaves you with this enormous cultural problem underneath to fix -- the knowledge, skills and abilities problem," Tibbits said.

Then there's technical debt.

"We've made some spotty progress here and there, but...we can't tell you today that we've identified all of our critical points of failure," Tibbits said, blaming an accumulation of legacy systems. "That doesn't just evaporate overnight because of FITARA or empowering the CIO."

However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to cloud technology, he added, saying such approaches could help agencies modernize their systems.

But on other technologies, he was less bullish. Telemedicine, for instance, could be great, but if it is done poorly, it could simply give everybody "faster access to badly organized health care," he said.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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