OMB addresses 'overlap' in tech offices

workflow (Urupong Phunkoed/ 

While the federal CIO position went unfilled for the first year of the Trump administration, the White House-based Office of American Innovation and the American Technology Council drove governmentwide modernization efforts.

Now that the traditional management team is mostly filled out, with a deputy director for management and a federal CIO in place at the Office of Management and Budget, lawmakers are looking for clarity on who is doing what.

At a March 15 hearing of two subcommittees of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) read off a list of IT policy topics taken over by White House tech groups in the past year, such as overhauling the Department of Veterans Affairs health care IT system, adoption of artificial intelligence, implementation of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act and empowerment of CIOs. He asked whether the White House groups had usurped some of the federal CIO's responsibilities.

Margaret Weichert, OMB's new deputy director for management, said that OAI had provided "catalytic" capabilities around many of these initiatives, but she implied that the federal CIO would have a much more authoritative role now that it had been filled on a permanent basis.

"We do have a federal CIO, an outstanding leader from the private sector who has done execution of change in complex, highly regulated environments and financial services and other industries, who's really here to help continue carrying that torch," she said.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), chairman of the IT Subcommittee, said he was glad the new team was finally in place but said he was concerned that the inability to fill key posts throughout government may have stalled some of that momentum.

The hearing was designed to take stock of the current federal IT environment as agencies gear up to start making deposits to modernization working capital funds created through the Modernizing Government Technology Act and vie for $500 million in supplemental funding from the General Services Administration over the next two years. 

Weichert told lawmakers that the President's Management Agenda scheduled for release next week "places IT modernization at its core" and promised updates on agency working capital funds by the summer.

One of the core questions the committee grappled with was how to hold CIOs and their agencies accountable for pushing modernization initiatives. Over the past two decades, Congress has passed multiple laws designed to imbue CIOs with greater authority over agency IT operations and budgeting, but the on-the-ground reality suggests many are still out of the loop.

Dave Powner, director IT management at the Government Accountability Office, warned that CIO authorities still need to be strengthened despite passing legislation like the Federal IT Acquisition and Reform Act in 2014. He referenced a "discouraging" January 2018 GAO report that found only one-third of agencies were following OMB and FITARA guidance to improve IT contracting and that a study of a random sample of 100 IT contracts found that only 10 percent had actually been approved by the agency CIO.

"We've got too much IT spend, but we don't have IT people on it," Powner said.

Hurd noted that many agencies have multiple CIOs at the subagency level and mused whether it was possible to reallocate budget funds from those offices to the department CIO. In an interview with reporters after the hearing, Hurd said that centralizing IT budgets could help push some departments past previous modernization roadblocks.

"I think [reprogramming funds] wholesale may be a shock to the system -- maybe that's what we need -- but I think there are some agencies where that could work, and I think that's something that should be explored," Hurd said.

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a former senior staff writer at FCW.


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