Federal chief information officer Vivek Kundra made his case Thursday to House lawmakers for why agency CIOs need control over a portion of the technology budget.
In both his written testimony and in answers to questions from members of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, Kundra said one key solution to the long-standing problem of failing IT projects is to give agency CIOs more budget flexibility.
“To deploy IT successfully, agencies need the ability to make final decisions on technology solutions at the point of execution, not years in advance,” said Kundra in his written testimony. “Agencies need the flexibility to move funding between investments or projects within their portfolio to respond to changes in needs and available solutions.”
During questioning by committee members, he said as CIOs move their focus to execution and away from policy development they need to be in the position to make tough decisions on whether a troubled IT project continues. And one main way for CIOs to do that is by controlling the budget.
“If you look at how IT in terms of how quickly development moves forward but when we appropriate money for IT in terms of the budget cycles it takes two-plus years, and given Moore’s law, IT is evolving so fast, agencies have to predict two years out what their projects are going to look like,” he said.
Kundra has made adjusting agency CIO’s roles part of his overall IT reform plan. As a part of the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point IT reform plan laid out in December, Kundra detailed how CIOs need to control the IT budget for commodity systems, such as e-mail, storage, Web hosting and other common services.
“Part of our reform agenda has been very much around making sure we are more execution focused,” Kundra said “We are actually reengineering and fundamentally reassigning the roles of the CIOs across every major department. The President’s Management Council is very focused on this. I’ve personally met with deputy secretaries and CIOs to talk about the reforms.”
He added that the meeting talked about what was working and what wasn’t working in their agency, and to make sure there is buy-in across the agency to meet these goals.
Additionally, President Obama attended a recent PMC meeting where the IT reform agenda was among the topics of discussion, Kundra said.
The role of the CIO has been a much debated and discussed issue since the Clinger-Cohen Act became law 15 years ago. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) last month asked the Government Accountability Office for a third review of the role of the CIOs since 2004. GAO is holding two sessions next week with former CIOs about their roles and responsibilities and what, if any, changes need to be made to the law.
Kundra points to the departments of Interior and Veterans Affairs as the models for how agencies should alter their technology executive’s jobs.
At VA, the CIO has budget authority over all technology.
“In three-and-a-half years, and from my view, almost solely because of the consolidated IT appropriation, the improvement of IT at VA has been in orders of magnitude, delivery of software, quality of metrics of availability, information protection, financial control and all the sort of things taxpayers ought to care a lot about,” said VA CIO Roger Baker at a recent conference. “And by the way, we saved a couple hundred millions of dollars along the way. It all stems from the fact that a central CIO, who frankly cares a lot about customer service, has control over those things and can enforce enterprisewide policies that make sense.”
In December, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a memo mandating there be only one CIO for the entire department, who would have authority over the agency’s IT infrastructure and procurement.
Kundra said the Department of Health and Human Services is going to issue a memo shortly redesigning the role of its CIO.
A request to HHS for comment on the memo was not returned. HHS CIO Mike Carleton wouldn’t comment when asked about a forthcoming memo.
“One of the things I’ve been doing is taking the memo that came out of the Department of Interior and talking about it as a best practice that can be scaled across the board,” Kundra said Wednesday at the IRMCO conference in Washington. “In the next few months, what you will see is a number of changes happen across the federal IT landscape from HHS to HUD and so forth.”
At the hearing Thursday, committee members wanted to know how the problems that have encumbered IT projects could be solved.
Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, said Kundra and OMB were doing a good job in trying to reform IT.
Congressman Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the committee, asked if there were any best practices the government could implement.
“IT upgrades across the government agencies have historically been the bane of an appropriator’s existence,” Serrano said. “The number of agencies that have undertaken an IT upgrade and completed it on time and under budget can be counted on one hand.”
Kundra said along with the CIO’s role, other major barriers include the lack of qualified project and program managers and poor overall communications with industry to develop acquisition requirements.
The Office of Personnel Management and OMB are working to fix the program manager challenge by creating a career track and certification program. The CIO Council also is developing a collaboration platform so project managers can share best practices and lessons learned.
The Office of Federal Procurement Policy issued a “mythbusting memo” last month to help improve communication between the government and vendors.
As OMB works on the other barriers, Kundra is trying to make headway with lawmakers to expand the authorities for CIOs.
“We’ve been having a number of discussions whether it’s with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee or the appropriators around how we need to make sure we are consolidating commodity IT under agency CIOs,” he said. “Secondly, for multi-year projects, where we have multi-year funding, allows them to make intelligent decisions so that they are not making the wrong decisions because the incentives are not to halt projects because you have uncertainty around future funding.”
Kundra said lawmakers are receptive to the idea of giving CIOs more budget authority.
“It is going to take some work and those conversations will continue especially in the coming weeks and months ahead,” he said.
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