by Kenneth Corbin

Federal CIOs Need Authority to Improve IT Efficiency

Feb 28, 20136 mins
CIOGovernmentGovernment IT

The soon-to-be-introduced Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act would grant agency CIOs control over federal IT budgets, encourage cloud computing and seek to reduce waste and under-performing technology programs.

The backers of a draft bill that would dramatically overhaul the federal government’s roughly $80 billion IT operations and vest agency CIOs with new authorities are planning to introduce formal legislation later this month, with a committee markup process to begin later in the year.

At a hearing on Wednesday morning, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and author of the draft Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, spoke of the urgent need to consolidate responsibility for IT procurement across departments and agencies in an effort to eliminate wasteful or duplicative projects and improve efficiency.

“Every agency needs one chief information officer who’s clearly in charge. There are 243 CIOs in 24 major agencies. The Department of Transportation alone has 35 CIOs,” Issa says.

“That doesn’t mean that the job is to lay off 34 CIOs, but there has to be a structure including a chain of command and including real authority to spend the money better, to be held accountable for that money, and ultimately what budget authority needs and a CIO needs is to stop quickly when that money clearly is not being as well spent as was anticipated,” Issa says.

“Today federal IT acquisition is a cumbersome, bureaucratic and often wasteful exercise. Taxpayers have watched tax dollars evaporate into massive IT program failures that bear staggeringly high costs for astonishingly poor performance.”

–Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.)

Issa’s oversight committee has been soliciting input from industry and government stakeholders on the draft bill, which he intends to formally introduce in March before the House goes into recess later in the month.

Standardizing Federal IT

In addition to the budgeting authorities for agency CIOs, the bill would authorize the federal CIO Council to develop shared services and platforms to standardize IT applications across the government. The legislation would also seek to facilitate the transition to cloud-based services, encourage the use of open source software and accelerate the federal government’s ongoing effort to consolidate its data centers.

Those proposals, which generally enjoy a measure of bipartisan support, come in response to the often-aired criticism that the government’s approach to IT acquisition, development and deployment is rife with unnecessary expenses, excessive delays and outdated rules and policies.

“When it comes to the management of federal IT we can and must do better, whether it’s commercial, off-the-shelf IT product management or major mission-critical custom IT programs. Today federal IT acquisition is a cumbersome, bureaucratic and wasteful–often wasteful–exercise. In recent decades, taxpayers have watched tax dollars evaporate into massive IT program failures that bear staggeringly high costs for astonishingly poor performance,” says Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).

“Far too many agencies expend precious dollars and time in creating duplicative, wasteful contracts for products and licenses the departments already own. The status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable,” Connolly adds, noting that the budget crunch seems likely to get worse with a looming set of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that are set to take effect at the end of the week.

CIOs See Need for IT Reforms

Federal CIOs, for their part, acknowledge the need for IT reforms, though they also point to concrete steps that departments and agencies have taken, some in response to directives from the White House such as the mandate to consolidate data centers and shift operations to the cloud.

Richard Spires, CIO of the Department of Homeland Security, touts a number of initiatives he has been overseeing under the broad goal of “rationalizing our IT infrastructure.”

“No successful company would treat its employees the way federal employees have been treated recently–repeated pay freezes, threats of unpaid furlough days and general disrespect, as if our employees were causing our nation’s fiscal imbalances.”–Daniel Gordon

Associate Dean for Government Procurement Law Studies

George Washington University Law School.

According to Spires, DHS has shuttered 16 data centers for an average savings of 14 percent, and is in the midst of rolling out 11 new cloud services and incorporating new cybersecurity standards in its remaining data centers.

At the same time, he emphasized that broader reforms are needed, including some of the organizational changes envisioned in Issa’s IT reform bill.

“We need to, and we can, manage IT more effectively,” Spires says.

For starters, he suggests that all proposed acquisitions should be reviewed and cleared by the agency CIO. “This will help ensure that IT procurement meet architecture guidelines, are not duplicative, and are properly staffed,” he says. “Given the structure of agency budgets and organizations, it is very difficult for an agency CIO to have the tools needed to drive such standardization.”

In service of further standardization, Spires also recommends the establishment of interagency groups to develop government-wide guidelines and best practices for program management and strategic IT sourcing, so that agencies wouldn’t have to start from scratch each time they contemplate a new IT project.

Then, too, Spires is working at DHS to formalize career paths for IT workers to pursue on a technical or managerial track.

The Search for IT Talent

But hiring managers with federal agencies face unique challenges in recruiting top IT talent. They, of course, find themselves competing in the labor market with private-sector firms, which are not bound by federal compensation schedules and can generally bring new employees on board more quickly.

The effectiveness of federal workforce is further challenged by the tendency of some generally conservative members of Congress to denigrate government employees in public remarks about the need to cut federal spending, according to Daniel Gordon, associate dean for government procurement law studies at the George Washington University Law School.

Gordon, who previous headed OMB’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy, warns that that sort of rhetoric, which has pervaded the recent debates over the budget between the White House and Congress, has a corrosive effect on morale throughout the ranks of the federal workforce.

“No successful company would treat its employees the way federal employees have been treated recently–repeated pay freezes, threats of unpaid furlough days and general disrespect, as if our employees were causing our nation’s fiscal imbalances,” Gordon says.

“We need to change from an atmosphere of fear, a poisoned atmosphere where people don’t feel appreciated, don’t feel empowered, to one where they believe that they can be trusted,” he adds.

“There’s cognitive dissonance when we say on the one hand, ‘Oh, sure, we’re going to support that workforce,’ but on the other hand we bash them all the time,” Gordon says. “You can’t expect to get positive results when you don’t show respect and support for your workforce.”

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, on Facebook, and on Google +.