Reporter’s Notebook

jason-miller-original“Reporter’s Notebook” is a weekly dispatch of news tidbits, strongly-sourced buzz, and other items of interest happening in the federal IT and acquisition communities.

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New IT accessibility rules catch up to 17 years of changes

Remember the year 2000? No, not Y2K, but the hot, must-have technology. Back then you wanted a Gateway computer with a 550MHz chip and a year of AOL for free (that’s America Online, in case you weren’t sure). LG had just put out a phone with a monochrome touch screen that had an address book AND an organizer. And PlayStation 2 had just given gamers something to be excited about because it played CDs and DVDs and could support better resolution.

That year also was the first time the U.S. Access Board issued regulations under Section 508  of the Rehabilitation Act.  Two years before that, in 1998, the board also issued regulations to implement Section 255 of the Communications Act. Both of these regulations would help agencies ensure people with disabilities could use information technology and communications (ICT) equipment such as faxes, copiers and printers in federal offices.

Now  more than 17 years later, the board issued updated regulations just in time for the virtual reality, artificial intelligence and the iPhone 7.

“The way the rule is structured you can see if the technology falls under Section 508 or Section 255,” said Tim Creagan,  a senior accessibility specialist for the U.S. Access Board, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “The scoping chapter tells you how it applies and when, and the technical chapters provide functional performance criteria for hardware, software, documentation, and then we reference standards. All are granular in detail to help the people determine how to make information and communications technology accessible. It is a much more structured approach.”

The board released the final rule on Jan. 9 after almost a decade of work. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying.

The board started the update effort in 2008 by bringing together an advisory committee of 82 people from 41 entities that included consumers, standards groups, people with disabilities, foreign governments such as Japan, Canada, Australia and the European Union, and from industry including AT&T and Microsoft.

The Access Board then issued advanced notices of proposed rulemaking in 2010 and again in 2011, before finally issuing a proposed rule in 2015.

“We were adapting our recommendations to the changing technology. Some of this had not occurred when the committee was in session, so we had to adapt our standards for the changing market conditions,” Creagan said. “I think we have succeeded in doing that in final rule.”

The new regulations under Sections 508 and 255 are both specific and general for hardware and software.

The board addresses access for all types of disabilities, including those pertaining to vision, hearing, color perception, speech, cognition, manual dexterity and reach.

“The rule… restructures provisions so that they are categorized by functionality instead of by product type due to the increasingly multi-functional capabilities of ICT products,” the board said in a release. “Revisions are also made to improve ICT usability, including interoperability with assistive technologies, and to clarify the types of ICT covered, such as electronic documents.”

A key difference from the first version is how far the rest of the world has come in recognizing the need to make sure technology is accessible to everyone.

The Access Board harmonized the new requirements with other guidelines and standards both in the U.S. and abroad, including standards issued by the European Commission and with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), a globally recognized voluntary consensus standard for web content and ICT.

“In fact, the rule references Level A and Level AA Success Criteria and Conformance Requirements in WCAG 2.0 and applies them not only to websites, but also to electronic documents and software,” the board stated.

Bruce Bailey, an accessibility IT specialist at the board, said after some initial concerns by industry the final rule is a consensus document.

“The WCAG 2.0 standards are so heavily vetted and followed for years all over the world, it makes the rules easier to follow and leads to a more coherent set of requirements,” Bailey said.

Agencies have one year to implement the new rule and the board and the General Services Administration will provide training and assistance.

Creagan said agencies better understand today than they did 17 years ago what it takes to ensure technologies are compliant with the accessibility standards.

“Where the government has addressed this issue, particularly in the last six-to-eight years, we’ve really focused on trying to put out best practices across the government,  and provide technical assistance to help different agencies,” he said. “GSA also has tools that help identify features and general contract language.”

Agencies have struggled with Section 508 compliance to some extent over the last decade or more. In 2012, the Justice Department issued a survey of agencies and found just over 50 percent of the agencies had a 508 coordinator and about 60 percent were giving 508 training to their staffs.

The Office of Management and Budget pressed agencies in 2013 by sending out its fourth memo in eight years reminding agencies include 508 in acquisitions and required a strategy to ensure that happens.

Creagan said he believes agencies are complying with 508, though he readily admits it varies from agency to agency.

“We’ve always felt all of the agencies are making some effort toward 508 and we realized there were variances and we acknowledged that. We wanted to make it clear that these rules apply across all the different sized agencies and programs,” he said.

The U.S. Access Board will hold two webinars on the new 508 and 255 rules — Jan. 31 at 1 p.m. EST and Feb. 2 at 2:30 p.m. EST.

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Stymied by risk, costs, shared services office crafts 4 ‘as-a-service’ approaches

In the world of federal government management, the year that was 2016 could be thought of in many ways, such as the important initiatives that stalled out or didn’t get done — like, say, the IT modernization bill.

But Mark Reger, the deputy controller at the Office of Management and Budget, and others prefer to look at the last 12 months in a different way.

Reger called 2016 the year that shared services saw a rebirth.

He said the new governance and oversight structure, the creation of the Unified Shared Services Management (USSM) office and a customer council are key pieces to the long-term health and success of the initiative.

Reger said the evidence is clear. Speaking at the Association of Government Accountants Federal System Summit in Washington on Jan. 13, he pointed to the 35 agencies that have plans in place to move to a shared service provider and more departments are working toward arrangements in the coming year.

He also highlighted how OMB is ramping up for 2017, including naming Lesley Field, the acting administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, as the new shared services policy officer, replacing Dave Mader, who left the administration on Jan. 4 after serving two-plus years as OMB controller.

Additionally, the USSM issued a new concept of operations, released a request for information for software-as-a-service and helped bring together all the payroll providers to agree on standardized payroll requirements.


GAO ruling lets GSA buy the USDA steak, not the mystery meat

The General Services Administration may have just put the first nail in the coffin that eventually will bury the widespread use of lowest-price, technically acceptable (LPTA) contracts for services.

The Government Accountability Office’s decision to deny four protests of GSA’s Alliant 2 contracts for IT services could end up being a landmark ruling that is that first nail.

“Lowest-price technically acceptable has been disfavored among contractors for putting price over innovation. Now we have protesters who in essence claim that cost was only nominally and improperly considered in the Alliant 2 evaluation,” said Barbara Kinosky, managing partner of Centre Law & Consulting LLC. “We have seen DoD move away from LPTA. This is the first major requirement coming out of a civilian agency that is clearly saying, ‘Contractors, we are looking for smart over cheap. Give us the USDA steak, not the convenience store mystery meat.’ I am confident this is a trend we will now see more of since GSA has taken the lead in the technology area where we definitely need to excel.”

The weight of this GAO’s ruling isn’t lost on GSA either.


Navy, NSA, NASA IT executives lead the 2017 retiree migration

The new year always seems to bring a migration of federal employees. January is commonly held as a good time to retire. There are quite a few people on the move to start 2017, so here are some of those retirements and changes in the federal IT and acquisition communities.

Janice Haith, the Navy Department’s deputy chief information officer, will retire on Feb. 3, a Navy spokesman confirmed.

Haith has served in her role since 2010 and has worked for the government for 33 years.

There is no word on who will replace Haith, even on an interim basis.

In addition to being the Navy Department’s deputy CIO, Haith served as the principal deputy/CIO for the Defense Security Service as the director for Intelligence Access for Warfighter Support (Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence) to oversee development of Defense Intelligence policy for information sharing, foreign disclosure and management of the IT portfolio.

During her time with the Navy’s CIO office, she worked on a variety of programs, including IT modernization and the move to Windows 10, as well as cybersecurity, especially aboard ships.

She also helped lead the effort to consolidate and get rid of duplicative or unnecessary software.


Ups and downs continue for GSA 18F’s identity management effort

The federal government’s fourth attempt to create a customer-friendly, usable identity management approach for citizen services is not failing as some have rumored. But is teetering on the edge of viability as a large agency customer decided not to participate in its initial launch.

Multiple industry sources confirmed that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) will not to take part in the pilot test that was expected to begin in 2017.

The decision by USCIS comes around the same time as the General Services Administration’s 18F organization started to get some momentum behind the program.

18F awarded Equifax an eight-month, $3.3 million contract with one four-month option to provide online identity proofing and fraud detection. A GSA spokesman confirmed GSA received five proposals and Equifax was found to be the best choice.

“GSA looks forward to continued collaboration with valued private sector partners in making online interactions with the U.S. government simple, efficient and intuitive,” the spokesman said.

Sources say GSA made the award in November.

GSA released the request for quotes in September, pulled it back because of a protest by eventual winner Equifax, and released again in October.

The GSA spokesman offered no further details on how 18F would implement the contract, or if any agency customers have signed on to the project yet.


OMB memo count: 31 over last 12 months, including 2 new ones

Government management never sleeps. Even as the management side of the administration of President-elect Donald Trump still is far from coming together, the Office of Management and Budget isn’t taking it easy awaiting the new political appointees.

OMB issued two significant memos last week — one addressing challenges around agency-vendor communications and the other updating agency requirements for how they respond to breaches of personal information.

These two are among a boatload of memos coming from OMB over the last year.  In fiscal 2017, OMB has issued 12 memos. Over the last 12 months, the administration sent out 31 memos ranging from the mundane, like apportionment requirements for the continuing resolution, to those trying to make major changes, like to how the government buys technology and pays senior executives.

The most recent two follow a long-held pattern by the Obama administration of updating, consolidating and hoping to leave policy in a better place.

In the data breach memo, released Jan. 3, OMB consolidates and updates four other memos and gives agencies six months to update or develop a response plan to a cyber breach involving personally identifiable information (PII).

“The goal here is to organize and take the lessons we’ve learned over the last 10 years,” said Ari Schwartz, a former White House cyber official and now the managing director of cybersecurity services at the Venable law firm. “Over the last 10 years since the breach at the Veterans Affairs Department, we learned a lot and there are things agencies have to do differently now than in the past and hopefully this will last longer than the last memos.”

Among the biggest changes in the PII memo is OMB outlined definitions of a breach versus an incident.


On average, OMB directors stay less than 2 years. So what does that mean for nominee Mulvaney?

President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget should elicit a lot of questions about the future of agency discretionary spending.

Mulvaney, who is a former small business owner, is best known for being a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus and for co-authoring the Cut, Cap and Balance Act of 2011, which tried to address what it saw as unneeded federal spending, and create a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. The House passed the bill in July 2011, but the Senate never voted on it and President Barack Obama threatened to veto it.

“With Mick at the head of OMB, my administration is going to make smart choices about America’s budget, bring new accountability to our federal government, and renew the American taxpayer’s trust in how their money is spent,” Trump said in a statement.

Mulvaney, who was elected in 2010 to Congress, will hold what is probably the most political position at OMB. So on one hand, his ability to influence agency’s budgets to cut unneeded spending will be helpful. Both the administrations of President George W. Bush and Obama tried to reduce the number of programs that were duplicative or no longer necessary, but ran into congressional roadblocks.

So maybe, just maybe, Mulvaney’s experience and relationships with lawmakers will help finally push through some long-needed changes in federal programs.

“Congressman Mulvaney has a great combination of experience advocating for fiscal discipline and a smaller, smarter government,” said Robert Shea, a former OMB official and now a principal with Grant Thornton. “That experience will serve him well as director of OMB, which has dual missions of budget and management of the Executive Branch.”

Mulvaney said in a statement that he believes the Trump administration will bring “budgetary and fiscal sanity back” to the government.


SBA and GSA, OFPP not seeing eye-to-eye on ‘rule of two’ application

A major dispute is brewing in the small business community. Just four months after the Supreme Court’s June 16 unanimous decision on the Kingdomware case, the Small Business Administration is taking a stand on the “rule of two” that is stressing out industry and agencies alike.

As a quick reminder, the nation’s highest court ruled in the Kingdomware case that the Veterans Affairs Department must continue to apply the “rule of two” for veteran-owned small businesses even if the agency surpassed its annual prime contracting goal. The “rule of two” states if an agency can find two or more qualified small businesses during market research of a contract under the Simplified Acquisition Threshold — between $3,000 and $150,000 — it must set aside the solicitation.

Now the Small Business Administration is expanding that Supreme Court ruling to apply to all task and delivery orders under SAT if the request for proposals comes under the General Services Administration’s schedules.

SBA issued a memo on Oct. 20 that was not widely known about until recently, telling its Procurement Center Representatives (PCRs) that the Kingdomware decision should apply to like statutes because task or delivery orders under multiple-award contracts are considered contracts.


NASA, Oracle earned top spots among 2016 notebook stories

It’s always fascinating to look back on the year that was to see what stories rose to the top and which ones, at the same time, stood out in my memory.

Below are my top 10 notebook items for 2016. They are in order of popularity based on web traffic, but I also chose the stories that I thought were most provocative and captured the goals of the notebook — to be a place where topics receive analysis and discussion in a way that maybe a regular everyday news story wouldn’t.

For each item, I offer some commentary on the story and its impact on the federal community.

  • 1) NASA’s ‘act of desperation’ demonstrates continued cyber deficiencies — This story was the fourth in a series investigating the space agency’s ongoing cyber challenges, particularly under its contract with Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Services. It stood out because Renee Wynn, NASA’s chief information officer, actually took a stand against HPES by not signing off on the contract’s authority to operate (ATO) after repeated unsuccessful attempts to fix outdated or missing software patches.
  • 2) Oracle to leave GSA schedule: A signal of broader change? — This was one of the biggest surprise stories of the year, both for the decision by Oracle and for the popularity of the story. This story shows the power of social media — in this case, LinkedIn — in spreading news across the community.
  • 3) Details emerge about new security clearance organization, processes — The lack of information around the new security clearance organization drove the popularity of this story. The details of the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) were few and far between until the Office of Personnel Management sent this letter to Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.).



Understanding why some federal IT projects take so long

If there was ever a case for agencies to change the way they plan and manage information technology projects, here it is.

High-level data from the Federal IT Dashboard compiled exclusively for Federal News Radio shows the average time it takes agencies to complete an IT program is 1,018 days and the average cost is $23.2 million per program.

The Defense Department, on average, takes the longest time to deliver value — 1,915 days per IT Dashboard program at an average cost of $115.5 million per program.

On the other side of the spectrum is the Energy Department, which takes on average 272 days per IT Dashboard program at an average cost of $2.6 million.

But before you gasp for air and call for hearings and inquiries, this raw data doesn’t tell the entire story.

Current and former federal chief information officers say the data, in and of itself, is interesting, but also shows the problem with the IT Dashboard and the way agencies track projects.

“I see this as an artifact of different agencies defining projects differently or breaking them down to different levels of granularity. Almost an apples to oranges kind of thing,” said Simon Szykman, who spent seven years as a federal CIO in the Commerce Department, and now is chief technology officer for federal services for Attain. “Inherently there’s a problem. Many times major IT programs include multiple projects so maybe there needs to be more transparency in how agencies break down programs for public reporting?”

The problems with the data on the IT Dashboard are not new. The Government Accountability Office has been pressing OMB since the portal’s inception about keeping the information current to ensure maximum transparency.


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