Inside the Reporter’s Notebook: 2014 IT budget passback is much ado about nothing

Welcome to my new feature, “Inside the Reporter’s Notebook,” where every two weeks I’ll dispatch news and information you may have missed or that slipped through the cracks at conferences, hearings and the like.

This is not a column nor commentary — it’s news tidbits, strongly sourced buzz and other items of interest that have happened or are happening in the federal IT and acquisition communities.

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Nearly two months late, the IT budget passback guidance turned out to be not really worth waiting for.


Multiple agency sources say the annual guidance detailing the Office of Management and Budget’s IT policy priorities for the following year is much ado about nothing.

There is only one new requirement for agencies in 2013: By April 15, they must submit a plan to OMB for how they will give their chief information officer more authority over commodity IT spending.

OMB issued a memo in August 2011 telling agencies to give CIOs authority over IT spending for things such as email, data centers and storage. But the memo from then OMB-Director Jack Lew, didn’t include any hard deadlines, so by requiring a plan in the IT budget passback, it’s a signal the memo didn’t have the impact OMB hoped it would.

At the same time, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is creating a bill to revamp the makeup of federal CIOs, both in terms of authorities and numbers of them across the government.

Beyond the CIO authorities deadline, OMB didn’t include new requirements or signal any new IT goals for 2013 or beyond.

“This has the least amount of direction I’ve seen in years,” said one long-time CIO, who requested anonymity because the IT passback is considered pre-decisional budget information. “It’s not pushing so hard on the cloud, and focused more on shared services and mobile government. I think OMB doesn’t want to signal cloud isn’t the way to go, but they just are not harping on it.”

Another CIO praised OMB’s limited IT passback guidance, saying they had enough to do and needed time to work on current priorities.

A former government official echoed the CIO’s opinion, saying agencies already have a lot to do with data-center consolidation, cloud, mobile government and PortfolioStat so they should focus on delivering on those goals and not have to deal with new requirements. The source said with sequestration still an unknown and the possibility for a year-long continuing resolution, any new programs would be hard to get started anyway.

But another CIO said the lack of teeth in the passback was surprising.

“I was surprised there was not more emphasis on managing information or technology better, especially with Issa pressing so hard on waste, fraud and abuse,” the CIO said. “As far as our priorities, OMB was more passive around data center consolidation and not pushing on us to make major changes. It’s all stuff we heard about at the recent CIO Council offsite.”

The IT passback included references to continued support for the cross-agency priority goal for cybersecurity and the Digital Government Strategy, but nothing more specific as far as deadlines or requirements.

A request to OMB for comment on the IT passback was not returned. In previous years, they have not commented on pre-decisional budget guidance.

Some may say the lack of details in the IT passback is a sign that Steve VanRoekel’s time as CIO is coming to a close.

Several people in the federal community — both inside and out of government — have mentioned in the last few weeks that VanRoekel may be looking for a bigger, better position in government.

One rumor that seems to be prominent is VanRoekel was interested in the OMB deputy director for management (DDM) position. Another rumor involved VanRoekel looking for something in the management or policy area of an agency, maybe a deputy secretary or assistant secretary for management type of position.

With current DDM Jeff Zients seemingly a candidate to be the next U.S. Trade Representative, a replacement is coming. But if you look at the recent events around sequestration, OMB controller Danny Werfel likely is the leading candidate to be DDM as he was acting in the role when Zients was acting OMB director. Additionally, Werfel seems almost to be auditioning for the role with the White House press conference on sequestration last week by testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday with several agency secretaries and deputy secretaries, including Defense Deputy Secretary Ash Carter and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

An email to OMB asking for comment on VanRoekel’s status was not returned.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) isn’t just focusing on IT reform, but now acquisition reform too.

He released a draft proposal — the Stop Unworthy Spending (SUSPEND) Act — to industry and agencies that would consolidate suspension and debarment offices across civilian agencies.

The bill would establish the Board of Civilian Suspension and Debarment within the General Services Administration. The GSA administrator would name the board and all other agency suspension and debarment offices would close down as of Oct. 1, 2014.

Reaction to Issa’s proposal has been mixed.

Dan Gordon, the former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy under President Barack Obama, said the proposal needs refinement and that centralizing suspension and debarment would undermine each agency’s process.

“Congressional attention needs to support, and not undermine, the suspension and debarment process,” Gordon said in an email. “It will be very important to get input from all the stakeholders — Democratic members on the committee, contracting agencies and their suspension and debarment officials, industry, GAO, IGs, and other players — to hear their views.”

But Angela Styles, a former OFPP administrator during President George W. Bush’s administration, said consolidation would be a good idea.

“One of the most difficult aspects of the suspension and debarment process is inconsistent process and procedures at the different agencies,” Styles said in an email. “Companies subject to these proceedings are entitled to a fair and consistent process whether they are before the Air Force or the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The consolidation would go a long way towards real due process for companies.”

The White House launched round two of Presidential Innovation Fellows just as round one of the fellows were delivering on their first set of milestones.

The administration is asking for experts to apply to work on five new projects over the next six to 12 months.

As with the first round, the five projects have a goal of improving internal government processes and helping citizens or businesses.

Two of the most interesting are the project to improve the standards for cyber-physical systems and an approach to improve agency financial-management systems. The cyber project comes just as the White House is expected to issue an executive order this week to develop voluntary standards for critical-infrastructure systems.

The financial-management systems initiative’s timing also is intriguing as OMB recently announced a new push for agencies to move these general ledger applications to shared service providers.

The third project that deservers mentioning, as well, is an innovation toolkit to help federal workers “to respond to national priorities more quickly and more efficiently.” Applications to be a fellow are due by March 17.

Congress is back in session and sequestration is on everyone’s mind. But that doesn’t stop the conference train from moving forward, and there’s a lot going on.

The Software and Information Industry Association holds its CloudGov 2013 conference in Washington all day Tuesday. Featured speakers include VanRoekel and DoD’s deputy CIO for information enterprise David DeVries.

Additionally, just getting late word that the Commerce Department will host an event Wednesday on the cybersecurity executive order. The Government Accountability Office will release its high-risk list on Thursday followed by a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. porters notebook