Inadequate program management continues to plague federal IT programs. Even after a decade of focusing on training and certifications, the underlying reason so many government technology projects flounder is the lack of management skills across the workforce, according to the Government Accountability Office.
That’s why former and current federal officials advocated Wednesday that the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act, when it is introduced in the next three weeks, address this long-standing blemish on federal IT in new and different ways.
“We must do more to develop and retain the skills it takes to run and manage IT programs,” said Richard Spires, the chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department and vice-chairman of the CIO Council, during his opening statement at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The common denominator for successful program execution is a solid program office.”
Spires said one way to ensure better program management is by creating a governmentwide Program Management Center of Excellence.
He said the center would be “staffed by detailees from agencies, which would harness best practices, tools, templates and training courses and drive the development of federalwide capabilities that programs can leverage.”
Spires said poor program management is one of three root causes for failed IT programs across the government.
Two other root causes
The other ingrained problems are the lack of a standardize IT infrastructure and the need for speed and agility when it comes to acquisition and funding.
The goal of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act is to update and improve how agencies buy and implement technology. The bill would be another attempt by Congress to tighten the oversight of federal IT spending, which has doubled over the last decade.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a draft version of the bill in September and has been seeking comments since from industry and government experts. He said he’d introduce a final version in Congress before members go out for spring break in March.
Wednesday’s hearing was the second in a month featuring experienced IT and acquisition officials and GAO. At the first hearing, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel offered only tepid support for the bill.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations, said agencies continue to invest billions of dollars in duplicative programs, including 622 different human resources systems, costing $2.4 billion; 580 financial management systems, costing $2.7 billion; and 777 supply chain management systems, costing $3.3 billion, despite the different laws and attempts by OMB to curb the redundant programs.
The draft FITARA addresses several longstanding issues, including improving program and project management. The draft calls for the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to examine the need for a program management job series. OFPP and OPM also would conduct a pilot around creating an IT program management career path and consider eliminating unnecessary or duplicative certifications and training in agencies.
Committee members at Wednesday’s hearing heard that the provisions in the draft bill to address project and program management need to go further.
Spires said all his experience inside and out of government shows him that having these experienced program and project managers makes a huge difference in delivering successful IT systems. He said that’s why creating a center of excellence is so important to the civilian agencies.
Most civilian agencies develop program managers internally and the governmentwide efforts, such as the Office of Management and Budget’s 2005 memo requiring agencies to focus on project management, haven’t taken hold like expected.
For example, DHS recently launched a new IT career path for its employees. It includes career profiles for 11 IT functional areas across three career levels-individual contributor, manager and senior leader. Spires wrote on the CIO Council website that “[t]he profiles are designed to help employees determine how to best prepare for new opportunities in a particular function, providing insight into typical roles, major responsibilities, general sphere of influence, competencies that contribute to success and critical development experiences.”
“We’re never going to be able to go out and hire all the talent we need in to the government to really use commercial best practices for running our programs. But we have pockets of excellence, we have excellent people,” Spires said. “If we can leverage those people in a way they can be leveraged across agencies, we’ll do ourselves good.”
Program and project management is but one personnel area that IT and acquisition area experts say the government needs to focus on to improve system development.
Stan Soloway, a former Defense Department acquisition official and the president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, which represents industry, said a recent survey of contracting officers by PSC found respondents say the training and acquisition environment is not any better than it was 10 years ago.
“Perhaps a fundamental rethinking to the point Mr. Spires talked about with the program management center of excellence gives you an opportunity on the civilian side that has never been done before,” he said. “What does program management mean? What kind of workforce of the future do we want and need? And how do we best develop them? If you go to best commercial practices, they don’t look anything like the way we develop our acquisition community in the federal government.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), ranking member of the Government Operations subcommittee and likely a co-sponsor of the bill, said the people provisions in the bill need to be “beefed up.”
Soloway said lawmakers need to consider the current age of the federal workforce and the fact, among IT employees, it skews even older.
“According to OPM, we have seven times as many people over 50 than under 30 in the IT workforce,” Soloway said. “It’s the diametric opposite of what we see in the commercial workforce.”
Respect federal employees
Dan Gordon, the former OFPP administrator under the Obama administration and now an associate law professor at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said he supports much of the workforce improvement provisions in the bill. But he offered a warning to lawmakers when it comes to trying to fix acquisition workforce problems with legislation.
“Mr. Gordon, if I could summarize what you said, ‘You can’t legislate out stupidity,” Issa said with a laugh.
Gordon responded, “I don’t think I actually used those words. Good management is something you just can’t do by legislation.”
Issa agreed. “That’s the reason we have to invest in our workforce every single day,” he said.
Gordon also warned lawmakers to improve how they threat federal workers.
He was a long-time federal employee with GAO before becoming a political appointee in 2009. But he said no private company treats their employees like Congress treats federal employees, with pay freezes, threats of unpaid furlough and constant bashing. He said if Congress wants agencies to do good work, they need good people to do it.
Broad support for other provisions
There is broad support for many other parts of the bill, including giving CIOs more authorities and limiting the number of people with the title of a CIO.
Issa said there are more than 243 CIOs in 24 major agencies. He said that’s too many chiefs, and every agency needs one person in charge, who has the authority to oversee and manage IT.
DHS’ Spires said the Veterans Affairs Department model of a single CIO with centralized budget and oversight authority should be used by the rest of government.
“Under the structure I think would be best for larger departments and agencies, the central CIO does have that high level view, but is also driving those enterprise capabilities that are leveragable by all,” he said. “You talked a lot about cloud computing. I’m a huge believer in it. We’ve got 11 cloud-based services. The notion then is once we have this infrastructure layer at an enterprise level standardized and modern, then individuals within my components, like FEMA, can focus on that value add. What’s the functionality? How do we help the mission deliver more effectively? What we have right now is too many people out on the edge worrying about infrastructure, worrying about things they shouldn’t be worrying about.”
One area where there is some concern is around the commodity IT acquisition center.
PSC’s Soloway said the bill needs to do a better job defining what commodity IT really means. He said commodity and commercial have similarities, but are not always the same.
DoD has attempted over the last few months to change the definition of a commercial product or service, and that, Soloway said, would throw a bigger monkey wrench into the works.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.