By one count, there are 243 people across the government with a title of chief information officer on their business cards.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said it seems to be a case of too many chefs spoiling the IT soup.
Issa, the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the proliferation of CIOs throughout government is one culprit behind failed federal IT projects. To make the system work, he said, each agency needs a single CIO with more authority and more gravitas.
He said all those chiefs is a basic contravention of the ideas behind the Clinger-Cohen Act, which created CIOs in the first place in 1996.
“If you authorize CIOs, then by definition the term should mean something. If you have hundreds of them for 24 major agencies, then you really don’t have chiefs,” Issa told a Monday IT reform forum hosted by NextGov in Washington. “That’s the most important thing this bill is intended to do. The chief should be the chief. There’s plenty of Indians, but there has to be one responsible individual who then holds their staff at all levels responsible regardless of their titles or pay grades. We don’t have that in the federal government.”
Who’s in charge of the IT budget?
Issa’s proposal to consolidate the authority of CIOs is one element of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act he began circulating in draft form in September. The bill’s proposed reforms encompass much of the universe of federal IT and aim to upright an acquisition system that observers almost universally agree is ill-suited for the fast-changing world of information technology.
But from his perspective as an overseer of agency decisions, Issa said one of the most important parts of the bill is the notion that one single person would have authority over an agency’s IT budget.
“You want to know that somebody’s in charge, but when you make them accountable you also want to give them the real ability to kill a program, enhance a program, move funds around, and candidly come to Congress or OMB with the kind of gravitas that can say, ‘look, this is my $2 billion and I’m telling you we need to move it from here to there,'” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the most technologically savvy individual, it has to be the best manager. It has to be somebody who understands whether a program is in trouble or it has a real opportunity to succeed.”
There is one agency in government whose CIO has full authority over technology spending throughout the enterprise: the Department of Veterans Affairs gained that unique power following a data breach that compromised personal information on millions of veterans. Issa said Congress missed the boat by not extending that authority to the rest of government. Doing so now, he said, won’t diminish Congress’s power of the purse, but it will let agencies make the adaptations they need to within a quickly changing technology landscape.
“Reprogramming authority will probably continue to be within Congress, but the idea that you should have one source that looks at the system and comes in and says we can spend money better over here, that’s what we intend to do,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a situation where Congress gives you a big pot of money, you go spend it and call us in the morning. I don’t think government is going that way, we are different. But the idea that you constantly come back to reprogram budget money and you have flexibility is a goal. So is the accountability of having less people coming to appropriations committees or even OMB. Imagine the Office of Management and Budget trying to deal with 243 different people who have the term chief. It would be hopeless.”
A growing knowledge gap
Issa spoke alongside Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), another collaborator on the draft reform bill. Connolly said government also needs to focus on developing a highly capable cadre of IT acquirers within agencies.
“We have to address personnel. One of the problems Darrell’s identified in terms of federal management of IT is that there’s a growing gap between the domain expertise in the public sector and the private sector,” he said. “It is not uncommon for the federal contractor providing the services to have all of the expertise on their side of the table. When I was in the private sector, I can think of one contract we had where over three years, we had 14 different government program managers. There was no continuity, and every one of them had his or her own ideas about what the contract really meant. It meant that over time the contract got morphed into something else, and satisfaction on both sides was highly unlikely.”
Connolly said now’s the time to focus on reforming the way agencies buy IT and eliminate wasteful spending on projects that wind up getting cancelled, since budgets are under pressure.
But Issa said he actually wouldn’t mind keeping IT funding where it is – as long as that spending winds up being effective. His committee has concluded the wasted funds amount to around $20 billion per year.
“What I believe is that we’re going to invest that $20 billion in things that actually work rather than in things that get cancelled. That $20 billion will save us $200 billion in waste, fraud and abuse throughout government,” he said.
“That’s unusual from somebody for whom everything’s about cutting. But you don’t cut the tax collector if you want to cut taxes. You don’t take the pilot out of the airplane. If you need to lighten the load, please do not have it be the pilots.”
Industry comments on the bill
Connolly agreed more effective IT can be a force multiplier when it comes to the budget For instance, if IT systems were developed and improved more effectively at the IRS, the results would make the upcoming fiscal cliff look almost irrelevant, he said.
“Our subcommittee highlighted the fact that every year, about $135 billion is left on the table in uncollected or unassessed taxes. Not a tax increase, but money we actually ought to be collecting,” he said. “Technology could help us. Beefing up the IRS a little bit could help us in getting our arms around some significant chunk of that. $135 billion times 10 is $1.35 trillion. It exceeds sequestration entirely.”
Issa said he publicly released the bill in draft form prior to formally introducing it in Congress in order to begin gathering feedback from the technology community and other interested parties.
While specific parts of the bill have taken some industry criticism, Trey Hodgkins, a senior vice president at the trade group TechAmerica, said it was a good starting point for an IT reform conversation.
“Our members have begun telling us pretty vocally over the last year that they’re increasingly convinced the whole process is broken. We no longer achieve best value for the taxpayer. This addresses several elements of it, but it doesn’t get to full-scale acquisition reform,” he said in an interview with Federal News Radio’s Francis Rose. “The devils in the details and we’ve been talking with the staff and Mr. Issa about how we can create effective mechanisms that don’t create unintended consequences.”
In a Nov. 30 letter jointly signed by TechAmerica, the Business Software Alliance, the Coalition for Government Procurement and the Information Technology Industry Council, the trade groups flagged several of those alleged unintended consequences.
For instance, introducing the phrase “commodity IT” into federal law could confuse existing definitions of “commercial items” in federal procurement, the groups wrote. And the bill’s emphasis on promoting the use of open source software would violate longstanding principles of technology neutrality in procurement law.
But Issa said the intent of the open source provision had been misunderstood. He said a key objective of the bill is to establish the federal government as one customer of IT products and services and allow agencies to share software innovations amongst themselves rather than repeatedly building and buying duplicative products.
“We’re one entity, and once you define us that way, what we’re really saying is that we can share within 24 or thousands of different subagencies in a collaborative way, so that when somebody comes up with something that works for them, somebody else can easily be aware that it’s on the shelf and can take that base and build on it,” he said.
“Not everything in the world is going to be COTS and walked in by a vendor, but at the same time we’re so used to buying the same thing 24 times, slightly different. I want to be neutral though. I want to say that we’re not prohibiting open source, but we will need legislation to define what open source is in government. I look forward to people who are concerned spending a lot of time with us to make sure we get it right. We’re not trying to exactly match what open source is in the private sector, because government is different. But we believe we can be collaborative to the benefit of the private sector and the public sector.”
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 8-10 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, D.C. metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.