Issa, Spires sketch visions for IT reform and CIO authority

House hearing on draft legislation explores budget authority, chains of command and the sheer number of agency CIOs.

Richard Spires - photo from flickr.com/oversight/

Richard Spires testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (Committee photo)

Granting federal CIOs more authority and budget flexibility might be the first step in a much-needed reform of IT acquisition to prevent mismanaged programs from draining scarce funds and resources. And a bill to do just that could be introduced within weeks.

In September 2012, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee posted a draft of reform legislation that aims to improve federal IT management and acquisition. The proposal includes several legislative ideas, such as decreasing the number of government CIOs to one per agency and giving that role more authority and flexibility.

Currently, there are more than 240 CIOs at 24 major agencies, with 35 at the Transportation Department alone, said committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) at a Feb. 27 hearing that focused on the draft Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. Issa said he plans to officially introduce the bill in late March.

"Every agency needs one chief information officer, who’s clearly in charge," he said. "There has to be a structure including a chain of command and including real authority to spend the money better and be accountable for that money. And ultimately, what budget authority needs and a CIO needs is to stop quickly when that money clearly isn’t as well spent as anticipated."

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who serves on Issa’s committee, gave several examples of high-cost, low-performance IT programs that were not canceled quickly enough. The Air Force, for example, spent six years and $1 billion on an enterprise resource planning system that failed to deliver a usable product. "Nearly 17 years after the enactment of the Clinger-Cohen Act, it is clear that agency chief information officers often lack the necessary authority and resources to efficiently analyze, track, and evaluate the risks and results of major IT programs," Connolly said. "We have to have somebody who has the authority and responsibility in each agency to manage these IT programs and investments."

CIOs should be given more flexibility with spending models, "specifically capital expenditures versus operating expenditures," said Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Amazon.com, in his testimony.

However, he added, that approach would work only if agencies are empowered to move to an operational expenditures model when it makes sense based on CIO priorities.

Richard Spires, CIO at the Department of Homeland Security, also testified. Issa asked Spires about the agency’s 13 CIOs, none of which have budget authority.

"Is that manageable to have to create a council of chiefs when no one in the room has absolute, direct budget authority?" Issa asked.

Spires acknowledged that although none had absolute budget authority, the issue is about how the government is funded and appropriated. At DHS, for example, components such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are responsible for controlling their own budgets.

Having full budget authority is just one way to get things done within an agency, "and there may be other ways to do it, but I need to be able to drive that set of efficiencies," Spires said.

As for the expectations of an agency CIO, Spires had a clear vision of what he thinks is needed. "Under the structure that I think would be best for larger departments and agencies, the central CIO -- the individual in my role -- does have a high-level view but is also driving those enterprise capabilities that are leverageable by all," he said.

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