2011: One bumpy ride

Innovation got pushed to the back burner as feds faced down pay freezes, shutdowns and budget cuts.

If you were to sift through the stories that Federal Computer Week ran in 2011, you’d find some items that would lift the spirits a little. Taken as a whole, however, you’d be hard-pressed to describe the year as anything other than the federal government’s very own annus horribilis.

It started with a total breakdown of whatever bipartisanship remained, with Congress pushing the country to the brink of a government shutdown, raising the specter of a debt default and rattling industry and financial nerves. It ended with the failure of the so-called budget supercommittee to reach a bipartisan agreement on $1.2 trillion in cuts. Automatic, across-the-board reductions loom.

In between, there were calls for federal furloughs, workforce cuts and pay freezes, and threats to ongoing IT modernization programs. Navy SEALs found and killed Osama bin Laden, almost 10 years after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Then the government was rattled by a 5.8 earthquake that struck the Washington metro area.

Perhaps we can cheer ourselves with the hope that the worst is over. But wait, is that an election year we see before us? Never mind, 2011 is almost over and gone forever. Onward!

Furloughs, pay cuts loom

What a start to the year. With a new Congress focused on austerity to close the budget gap, a House bill targeted federal employees for 10 days of unpaid leave in fiscal 2012. Coupled with a 10 percent cut to congressional salaries, $5.5 billion in savings were expected.

Also in January:

Jan. 5: A measure to strengthen oversight of agency performance becomes law

Jan. 11: Budget woes will only worsen IT modernization problems, study says

Jan. 14: DHS sets new, more diverse border tech plan after SBInet is dumped

Jan. 19: Saddled with a pay freeze and a ban on new hires, agencies are urged to focus on employee retention

Jan. 31: Obama chooses OMB’s Jeffrey Zients to lead government reorganization push

Boost or cut IT spending?

President Barack Obama proposed increasing the federal government’s IT budget to just under $80 billion for fiscal 2012 to pay for cloud, mobile and other technologies. Some agencies might have been confused, however, because the White House also said eight of them would see cuts of 10 percent or more because of “unaffordable” IT programs.

Also in February:

Feb. 11: Oops! FEMA server failure wipes out seven years of vital data on Katrina, wildfires and other events

Feb. 14: House GOP cuts another $100 billion from fiscal 2012 budget, with Energy and EPA potentially big losers

Feb. 23: Despite the overall freeze on federal pay, the House says it shouldn’t apply to merit increases

Feb. 25: White House rejects status quo and pushes for dramatic and disruptive IT strategies

Pay for performance is dead, right? Wrong. Maybe.

You would have thought that after the Defense Department’s National Security Personnel System failed so publicly in 2009 pay for performance would be dead for a while. But Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), the new congressional overseer of the federal workforce, decided it was worth another shot and scheduled hearings on the topic. Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry tried to dampen Ross’ enthusiasm by citing the difficulty of measuring employee performance. At a later event, Berry said the government must learn to do that before pay for performance can be implemented.

Also in March:

March 3: NIST publishes FISMA ‘capstone’; now agencies have nowhere to hide on security

March 10: DOD gears up for a pitched battle over budget cuts, citing an impending crisis

March 11: Federal workers are an easy target and victims of demagoguery, Partnership for Public Service exec says

March 23: Government transparency, a key Obama goal, could suffer under e-gov funding cut

House GOP: Prosperity = Fewer fed jobs, lower salaries

House Republicans followed up their earlier attempts at cutting the federal budget with a Path to Prosperity plan that would cut $6 trillion from the federal budget in the next decade, with a 10 percent reduction in the federal workforce and big cuts to salaries and benefits as major goals. As a stream of comments from FCW readers showed, feds were definitely not feeling the love.

Also in April:

April 8: The budget debate circus took it to the deadline, but a funding agreement averted a government shutdown

April 18: As fears of cyber war deepen and a debate about U.S. capabilities heats up, some believe China is already ahead

April 20: In some welcome good news, at least one source thinks federal IT spending will rise, despite all the gloom

April 28: DOD wants lower prices, even on sole-source contracts and even though it could result in longer negotiations

April 28: The White House is confident that most IT reforms in its 25-point plan will happen on time

DHS handed cybersecurity lead, sparks big expansion plan

In proposed legislation, the White House gave the Homeland Security Department the authority to oversee the security of federal IT systems, including the power to mandate policies to protect core critical infrastructure systems. Naturally, DHS then said it would need to boost its cybersecurity workforce by 50 percent.

Also in May:

May 4: Senate bill codifies TechStat-type reviews of IT projects and allows for OMB guidance on IT workers’ performance incentives

May 10: OMB will launch Performance.gov to publicly track agency programs but said e-gov cuts could have an impact

May 11: Osama bin Laden is dead, and now a CIA-led government group will see what intelligence it can extract from his computers

May 17: DHS, struggling to modernize its financial systems, dumps TASC and opts for the cloud as a possible answer

May 25: With e-gov funds cut 75 percent, the White House stops work on transparency sites

Kundra resigns, woe follows

Federal CIO Vivek Kundra resigned and headed for Harvard. Given that he was the Obama administration’s most public — and very vocal — advocate for reforming federal IT management, his departure set off a storm of reactions and doubt about his legacy and whether his replacement would be able to see his initiatives through to completion.

Also in June:

June 1: A persistent cyberattack on defense contractors might have compromised DOD security keys

June 13: The administration plans to slash duplicative government websites and freeze additions

June 15: Navy officials concede that their IT infrastructure has become bloated and vulnerable, and a fix will take a ‘significant effort’

June 17: The State Department’s Vance Hitch, the longest-serving Cabinet-level CIO, heads out

June 30: It’s Security 101: Don’t use found thumb drives. But DHS says many people do.

June 30: Army CIO’s office recommends shutting down Army Knowledge Online, even as alternative e-mail programs struggle

Meet the new telework, (pretty much) the same as the old one

The Telework Enhancement Act that Obama signed in 2010 was supposed to usher in a new, more expansive era of teleworking for feds. Oh, well, maybe later. For now, according to FCW readers, a well-meaning but toothless directive has given agency managers little incentive to support telework, leading to frustration, misunderstanding and a concept that is great in theory but very much lacking in practice.

Also in July:

July 6: An Energy Department lab, the latest to suffer a cyberattack, shuts down websites and IT systems

July 14: Everyone agrees that new cybersecurity laws are needed — and that’s where agreement ends

July 15: DOD wants cyber tech acquisition to happen at cyber speed

July 21: DOD is uncharacteristically unsure about cyber defense, and its plans are slammed

July 25: Want to know what chopped liver looks like? With pay freezes, furloughs and layoffs ahead, just ask a fed.

IT reform means CIOs have to be so much more

If government CIOs ever had any complaints about being undervalued in their jobs or not having the clout they need, then they must have been cheered by a memo from Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew, who stressed the additional actions CIOs need to take to make sure IT reform happens. Now they must also be investment analysts, recruiters, security officers, cheerleaders, overall good people and occasional janitors (just kidding).

Also in August:

Aug. 5: The techniques behind an advanced persistent cyber threat, as RSA saw it

Aug. 18: Agencies get their marching orders: Cut fiscal 2013 budgets by 10 percent from 2011 appropriations

Aug. 19: Woozy from sleepless nights, DOD officials target a new approach for security in the cloud

Aug. 19: How the Army’s new networking strategy is changing the way it fights wars

Aug. 23: No, that wasn’t a Democrat and a Republican agreeing on something. That was a REAL earthquake.

Aug. 29: A TV editing goof shows that, yes, China actually was responsible for attacking a U.S. website

‘Cartel’ is a nasty word in Washington

When Federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in a parting shot that an “IT cartel” of major government contractors was blocking reform efforts, you have to wonder if he knew what he was saying. Reaction from the contracting fraternity ranged from disappointment and disapproval to, publicly at least, mild offense. FCW readers, on the other hand, expressed stronger opinions, both for and against.

Also in September:

Sept. 6: It was a decade ago, but the memories of 9/11 are still strong for many FCW readers

Sept. 12: The government’s outsourcing of federal IT to other countries exposes the U.S. to a huge cybersecurity risk

Sept. 16: DOD strengthens its procurement workforce and takes critical functions back from contractors

Sept. 21: If you are still wedded to your paper documents, beware: OFPP and GSA are coming for you

Sept. 23: Remember the 25-point IT reform plan? Execs say it really is making a difference.

Cyberattacks are going up, up, up!

There’s probably still someone in government pooh-poohing the idea of cybersecurity, but he or she must be getting pretty lonely. The Government Accountability Office said security incidents have soared by more than 600 percent in just five years while agencies’ security practices remain lousy. That’s pushing lawmakers to consider legislation, but the current bipartisanship on all things cyber could soon disappear.

Also in October:

Oct. 5: The State Department CIO discovers cronyism and nepotism in government, and walks out

Oct. 7: New Federal CIO VanRoekel raises the goal on data center closures

Oct. 11: Muffins are the new toilet seats, and scrutiny over waste is heating up

Oct. 12: The new USAJobs website opens, and an avalanche of complaints follows

Oct. 25: Steve Jobs: Genius and/or jerk? He’s dead, and now the knives come out.

Oct. 27: Federal CIO copies cloud-first mandate for a program to spur adoption of innovative technologies

The USAJobs mess, and why communication matters

When the USAJobs 3.0 website launched Oct. 11, it was seen as a mighty step forward for federal job seekers, but it quickly turned into a noisy fiasco. Users, industry, and eventually policy-makers and pundits weighed in with complaints about access and other problems, and lawmakers even suggested rebidding the USAJobs contract. The mess wasn’t helped by OPM’s lack of timely responses to the complaints. It was later revealed that Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel had led an IT SWAT team to help fix the site.

Also in November:

Nov. 2: NIST publishes its first draft of a road map for agencies making the move into cloud computing

Nov. 2: FedRAMP is close to being mandatory for agencies going to the cloud

Nov. 3: DOD IT spending still looks good, despite budget cuts

Nov. 12: Contractors breathe easier as the Senate kills a 3 percent withholding tax

Nov. 14: The White House asks Congress to keep funding for e-gov initiatives

Nov. 23: After the failure of the budget supercommittee, federal workers look to an uncertain future

Smart stuff is coming, like it or not

Smart phones, tablet PCs and other 21st-century technology scare the wits out of a lot of government IT and security folks, but they’d better get used to it because smart technology is here to stay.

Former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra made that point early in the year when he suggested providing a $2,000 subsidy for federal employees to buy and use personal mobile devices at work. Many people shot down the idea as impractical, for a number of reasons, but it’s clear the use of smart devices in the workplace is catching on.

The drivers are mobility and the need to cut costs, said Veterans Affairs Department CIO Roger Baker when he announced that VA employees could bring personal mobile devices to work beginning in October. Later, VA said it would also buy 100,000 tablet PCs.

Of course, this is the government so the effort wouldn’t be complete without some kind of policy hitch. Bosses at the super-secret National Security Agency decided that, because of security fears, employees there would not be using personal smart phones at work for the foreseeable future. But the wave seems unstoppable, particularly now that the General Services Administration has come out with a new telework policy that’s aimed at — you guessed it — mobility and agility.

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