Senate appropriators signal support for IT reform

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said there is room for "policy and discussions" around expanded agency CIO authorities, but expressed concern that legislation might fail to take into account unforeseen future circumstances.

Steve VanRoekel 102012

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel cautioned that the roles of agency-level CIOs, just like those in the private sector, continue to evolve.

The botched launch of HealthCare.gov last October continues to drive conversation about federal IT reform, with an eye to making the buck stop with agency CIOs.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the federal CIO's office, is continuing to fine-tune legislation to "empower federal agency CIOs to drive more effective IT investments," he said at a May 7 Senate hearing.

Udall and Republican colleagues Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) were among the members who sought to add aspects of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) to the Defense bill in late 2013, and they introduced a stand-alone bill in December that tracks closely with FITARA.

The Obama administration still does not appear to be ready to go quite that far. Dan Tangherlini, head of the General Services Administration, said that while his agency had consolidated all IT policy around its CIO office, that approach "may or may not be a useful model for other agencies, depending on how interrelated their functions are."

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said there is room for "policy and discussions" around expanded agency CIO authorities, but he cautioned that the roles of the agency-level and private-sector CIO alike continue to evolve -- implying that legislation might not precisely capture the authorities a CIO may need in the future.

IT oversight expert Dave Powner of the Government Accountability Office suggested that CIO authority over spending on commodity IT projects like data centers and email would make sense, and noted that policies at the Office of Management and Budget overseen by the federal CIO are designed to do precisely that -- give agency CIOs more control over commodity spending and more visibility into large scale IT projects at agency components. Powner said that "good leaders in certain agencies" were getting the job done in the absence of legislation.

Separately, VanRoekel released new policy on the next round of PortfolioStat meetings for agency officials. More senior leadership will be included. Alongside CIOs, the deputy secretary and the human capital, financial, acquisition, and performance improvement chiefs will attend sessions. Agency submissions to OMB to prepare for sessions will include an emphasis on the "effectiveness of high impact investments," a measurement that goes beyond the on time/on budget metrics of the federal IT Dashboard.

At the hearing, VanRoekel explained that he was seeking to ramp up the staff at the federal CIO shop to spend more time looking at investments as they are being prepared. He's looking to shift focus "from reactive to proactive," he told lawmakers.

VanRoekel said his staff spends 40 percent of its time engaging with GAO, and much of the rest of the time goes to statutory duties such as preparing budget submissions and other reports to Congress. He said more staff -- the CIO is seeking a $20 million appropriation for his office -- is about additional capacity to hire experts from the private sector to scope out troubled projects, and rotate through the government on a temporary basis.

"What we've seen is a very small number of people that have a notion of how to deliver things in modern technology terms can really change the game. It doesn't take an army of new people," VanRoekel said.

Tangherlini explained that his new 18F project management team is a complement to this proposed new OMB capacity.

"We're trying to build an additional level of capacity beyond providing agencies with contract solutions," he said. "We can help agencies through having internal capacity, programming capacity, and a better understanding of how you build IT systems."

Another benefit, Tangherlini said, was using lessons learned from 18F efforts as a "feedback mechanism" so that mistakes made on individual projects aren't repeated across government.

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