How flexible should FITARA be?

The federal CIO told House watchdogs that IT reform would be implemented with strict oversight, but there are already rumblings inside agencies about possible exceptions.

Tony Scott  (Photo: VMware)

For federal CIO Tony Scott, success for FITARA will be measured by "speed."

Federal CIO Tony Scott told a House panel that implementation of the federal IT reform law will provide agencies some flexibility, but that the Office of Management and Budget will have the final say on plans to give top level agency CIOs more authority over IT budgeting and hiring.

OMB issued final guidance on the implementation of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) in a document issued June 10 by Director Shaun Donovan. The guidance establishes a "common baseline" that gives CIOs the power to approve the IT portion of an agency budget request, approve hiring of component-level tech officials, as well as the CIO's role in setting program management and acquisition strategies for personnel.

The guidance also gives CIOs the authority to designate proxies to handle some of the day-to-day decisions in a "rules-based manner," that could kick in at a certain dollar figure, or type of IT activity, or on a bureau-by-bureau basis.

"We believe that this combination of a Common Baseline coupled with a flexible CIO Assignment Plan allows for agency CIOs to retain oversight and accountability while minimizing the chance for bottlenecks," Scott said at a joint hearing of the IT Subcommittee and the Subcommittee on Government Operations of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Under the guidance, agencies are required to deliver implementation plans to OMB by Aug. 15. OMB has to approve the plans, and once approved they will be posted on public-facing agency websites. Implementation of the new authorities is scheduled to be in place by the end of 2015.

However, don't be surprised if there are a few bumps in the road. There are cultural issues that could impede acceptance of the centralized agency CIO authorities at the components and bureaus at highly federated departments, said Richard Spires, former CIO of the Department of Homeland Security.

"They're used to a certain level of autonomy. So you'll have major programs that have a lot of IT, but the mission people don't view them as quote, IT programs," Spires said in his testimony.

Such a situation is already emerging. The concerns are especially pronounced with the supercomputing program run by the National Laboratories program. A policy rider in the Senate appropriations bill funding the Department of Energy would exempt the labs from some of the budget and CIO authority provisions of FITARA.

"Our national laboratories are building the fastest research supercomputers in the world and developing next-generation exascale machines," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, who is backing the carve-out for the labs. "One-size-fits-all models don’t work well, and I am concerned that this well-intentioned law could make it more difficult to develop the technology we need to support the Department of Energy’s research and national security missions," Alexander told FCW.

There are already exemptions built into FITARA for the intelligence community and certain aspects of IT governance at the Department of Defense, which is prepping for its own new top IT management role due to take effect in 2017.

The administration isn't likely to grant the exception. Anne Rung, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at OMB said that while the White House was eager to talk to agencies about their concerns, the administration was already on record as opposing the exemption.

"It's our viewpoint that FITARA is a tremendous management tool for the agencies, and we are not carving out the Department of Energy labs," Rung said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), one of the original sponsors of FITARA, warned administration officials that agency leaders are looking to Congress for exceptions. "What's happening is people who want carve-outs, they seek legislative redress before we've even implemented the law ... giving chutzpah a whole new meaning," Connolly said. He urged the administration to "resist that temptation" to grant one-off exceptions to certain programs or agencies.

What Success Looks Like

There are a lot of moving parts to FITARA. In addition to CIO authority changes, implementation covers risk management in IT investments, portfolio review, training of IT acquisitions specialists, software licensing, strategic sourcing and the Federal Data Consolidation Initiative.

This array of policy changes, much of which codifies existing Obama administration IT policy, can obscure what FITARA is supposed to do -- give more transparent oversight into IT projects to avoid failures on the scale of HealthCare.gov.

For Scott, success is about speed.

"To me, it's faster delivery. It's really speed, it's efficiency of our spend, projects that are on time and on budget, and meeting the mission that they were designed for. They're secure. That we have modern infrastructure that those things run on. If we did those things, then I think we would declare this a success," he said.

Rung added, "For me, success is [when] IT acquisition comes off the high-risk list" of federal programs maintained by the Government Accountability Office. 

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