New CIO authorities only first step toward better federal IT

New legislation strengthens the role of the federal CIO, but without cultural shifts within the government to empower the role, the impact could be limited.

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The most significant overhaul of the government technology apparatus in two decades grants federal CIOs dramatic new authorities, but a number of obstacles ranging from agency culture to legacy IT stand in the way of reform.

Current and former government officials described those challenges at a recent joint House subcommittee hearing, telling lawmakers that groups in the public and private sector are working on guidance to help agencies implement the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA.

"Our guidance takes major steps in ensuring CIOs have a seat at the table for technology-related budget, procurement and workforce matters," Scott says.

"And the backbone of our guidance is the common baseline which outlines roles and responsibilities for CIOs and other senior agency officials," he adds. "More importantly, it establishes a groundwork for productive partnerships among these leaders to make IT decisions that best support missions. And, finally, it positions CIOs so they can be held accountable for how effectively they manage the full lifecycle of IT-related products, services and customer and citizens' outcomes."

[ Related: How CIOs can reduce shadow IT in government ]

In addition to the guidance that Scott's team is developing through the Office of Management and Budget, the public-private partnership ACT-IAC is formulating its own tip sheet for consolidating CIO authorities and improving IT acquisition and delivery in the government.

A new breed of government CIO

Richard Spires, CEO of Resilient Network Systems and the former CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, cautions of the significant cultural barriers that arise with any agency reorganization. Those challenges are compounded in large, diffuse organizations with multiple sub-agencies and bureaus, many of which have their own CIOs who are used to operating with a high level of autonomy.

"The agency CIO needs to have the leadership, management and political experience to drive this change, as well as a deep understanding of IT management," Spires says. "And second, the agency leadership must be supportive of the agency CIO, particularly in agencies that are operating in a federated environment."

Spires and others speak of a new kind of CIO coming to the government. A central goal of FITARA is to harmonize the IT operations within an agency with the business and financial divisions, in part by involving the CIO in the budgeting process. Just as important as having that structure in place, however, is having the right individual in the CIO role, argues David Powner, director of IT management issues at the Government Accountability Office.

[ Related: Federal CIOs Squeezed by Budgets, Executive Buy-in ]

"First of all you need the appropriate processes, but we also need the appropriate people, and I think one of the things, hopefully with FITARA [is] it's going to attract even a better breed of CIOs into the federal government if in fact it's a real CIO job," Powner says. "Some of the CIO jobs in the federal [sector] aren't [like] CIO jobs that you have in the private [sector]."

The GAO has been highly critical of the federal government's handling of IT. Earlier this year, the watchdog organization included IT acquisition and operations on its list of "high-risk" areas in the federal government.

Blasting the feds on IT

Powner did not let up at the hearing, blasting the tendency toward duplicative IT projects within agencies and the continued reliance on legacy systems, which comes at considerable expense.

And when the feds have marched through the acquisition process, they have too often been overly ambitious in scoping a project, and too slow to admit when the rollout had gotten off track.

"The federal government has wasted billions of dollars over the years on failed IT acquisitions," Powner says.

He is urging agencies to redouble their efforts to consolidate data centers, and to recommit to the PortfolioStat review process through which government organizations evaluate their IT projects to ensure they align with the agency's business objectives and are not duplicative.

Further, Powner and others stress the importance of incremental development, breaking up a large project into smaller, more manageable pieces. Not only would that approach help avoid over-budget, blown-deadline boondoggles like the famously rocky rollout, it could also provide the vendor community with much-needed clarity and simplicity when it comes to scoping projects, according to Anne Rung, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at OMB.

"What I hear consistently from industry is that the issues and challenges start at the requirements phase, really early in the process," Rung says, imploring agencies "to approach these acquisitions in a more modular manner."

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