Is EPA weakening the authority, power of its CIO?

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Editor’s Note: This story was updated on July 24 with new details from EPA.

After two laws, an executive order and countless reminders that federal agency chief information officers MUST report directly to agency secretaries or deputy secretaries, the Environmental Protection Agency is regressing.

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Multiple sources in and out of EPA say the leaders are reorganizing the entire administrative and management offices and pushing the CIO deeper into the organization under the assistant secretary in the office of administrative and resource management (OARM).

The decision to reorganize OARM comes as EPA named in late June Vaughn Noga as its new CIO and principal deputy administrator in the Office of Environmental Information, replacing Steve Fine, according to an internal announcement obtained by Federal News Radio.

Fine took a new position starting Aug. 5 as a senior advisor in the Office of Air and Radiation in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Vaughn currently serves as the director, Office of Administration, Office of Administration and Resources Management, where he is responsible for a diverse portfolio, including facilities and property management, physical and personnel security, and safety and health,” said the internal email from EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson. “I want to thank Dr. Steve Fine for serving as the PDAA in OEI and leading the organization through transition and improvements in cybersecurity, and hardware and software advances agencywide.”

Fine had been acting CIO since Ann Dunkin left in January 2017 as part of the Obama administration. But EPA hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed assistant administrator and CIO for five years when Malcolm Jackson left the position. The Senate never confirmed Dunkin because of an unrelated hold.

What the memo doesn’t say — and sources say, has not been communicated in writing — is Noga may be a PDAA in name only.

Sources say EPA’s plan to merge OEI and OARM would push the CIO, which had been Senate-confirmed assistant administrator position for more than two decades, down to a deputy position in the resources management office.

The CIO would answer to the principal deputy of OARM, currently Donna Vizian, or the assistant administrator, should one ever be named and confirmed. Vizian has been acting since before the Obama administration ended.

“Moving the IT organization down a level will only decrease the visibility and the needs of IT by the agency leadership,” said one former EPA official, who requested anonymity in order to speak about sensitive discussions. “It is a surprising move since the presidential cyber executive order made the deputy administrator responsible for cyber. This is a step backwards for IT and EPA.  This model was used back in the late 1990s before organizations realized IT needed to be part of the leadership team for them to be successful.”

EPA taking a step back from technology

An EPA spokesman on Tuesday confirmed in an email to Federal News Radio that the agency is merging the Office of Environmental Information and the Office of Administration and Resources Management after consulting with the Office of Management and Budget.

“The combined organization – the Office of Mission Support – will be the national program manager for information management, information technology, acquisition, grants, human resources, real property and security.  It’s workforce will be about 1,000 people,” the spokesman said. “Given the breadth of responsibility and the size of the organization, the agency decided to name the deputy assistant administrator for Environmental Information- the senior career position over IT/IM – to be the CIO.  The proposed placement would allow the CIO to focus full-time in IT and information management (IM) activities—continuing to give those issues the attention they deserve.  It also ensures continuity in the organization and a strategic approach by an IT professional. The CIO will continue to have access to the senior leadership of the agency and will continue to participate in agencywide IT/IM budget formulation and strategic planning.”

Another former EPA official, who also requested anonymity because they didn’t receive permission to speak to the press from their current company, said the merger is concerning because it seems to drop the CIO down a notch in the organization.

“Depending on how they do it, the CIO may not have a voice at the table with deputy administrator or administrator,” the former official said. “If you have an administrator who is concerned about technology, then maybe he or she gives the CIO a seat at the table. But it’s not organic like it would be if the CIO reported directly to the administrator or deputy administrator.”

The former official said it seems that technology is taking a back seat at EPA.

“Technology grew up in each of those mission offices separately over time, and that created inefficiencies,” the official said. “So if the CIO is not with other assistant administrators then technology will be an afterthought and not be used strategically. Think about it this way, if the assistant administration for air talking about technology, but does not understand where technology is going or where OMB wants it to go, and the CIO is not sitting there to talk about where the agency needs to go, then you run the risk of creating siloed solutions.”

Dunkin said in an email to Federal News Radio given how complicated technology is and will continue to be, the CIO needs to have both the positional power and direct access that comes by reporting to head of the department to influence others who report to the executive too.

“I’ve heard many people try to tell me otherwise but it is clear to me that reporting relationships and access matter. The CIO has to have a seat at the table with the rest of the department or agency head’s staff. They must be seen as a peer,” Dunkin said. “So, the leadership of the EPA can make all the claims they want the CIO will be invited to the administrator’s staff and have access to the administrator, but if the CIO is a deputy Assistant Administrator, they won’t have the relationships or leverage to get results. This is further complicated within the EPA where every assistant administrator and regional administrator is a political appointee. Turning the CIO into a career position clearly removes them from the group.”

She added the CIO is held accountable by OMB and Congress to meet IT mandates, so changing the reporting structure will reverse a decade of progress.

“Meeting the mandates weren’t easy when I was there but my peers knew that I had the backing of the administrator and the deputy administrator along with the law. If the CIO becomes a deputy administrator, not only does the CIO lose positional authority and their position as a peer appointee, but they administration sends a clear message that they don’t care about the law that empowers CIOs,” Dunkin said. “That means the CIO loses the ability to exercise the authorities of Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) or [President Trump’s] executive order. Staff will know that the administrator doesn’t care about complying. The new EPA CIO will be operating with both hands tied behind his back as a career deputy assistant administrator.  So, the bottom line is that this is not good for EPA continuing to transform IT. The Pruitt team has starved OEI of resources and now the CIO is losing their authority.”

OMB not happy either

Multiple emails to the Office of Management and Budget asking about how the administration is tracking agency progress in meeting the goals of the May executive order on CIO authorities were not returned.

The latest FITARA scorecard from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says EPA’s CIO reports directly the administrator or deputy administrator. But unless Noga or someone else comes forward to tell the committee access has been shut down or clearly diminished, the charade of reporting will continue.

And that’s why this move is so worrisome for many former EPA officials. There is nothing in writing. Sources say congressional oversight committees declined to approve the reorganization, but agency leaders are going forward anyway.

Sources say OMB isn’t happy with EPA’s actions either.

The second former EPA executive said these changes are being driven by Henry Darwin, EPA’s chief of operations. His background is using lean management principles where he used this approach as the state of Arizona’s chief of operations, where he oversaw the operations of all 35 state agencies and worked to stand up state government’s first intentional management system based upon lean principles.

Lean principles focus on the customer by creating more value in each process and reducing any process that doesn’t add value.

As for Vaughn, he walks into a tough situation. Dunkin had begun to reorganize the CIO’s office, but Fine and others weren’t happy with that direction and had begun dismantling it.

The second former EPA source said Vaughn likely will reverse course again and continue with the concepts of agile project development and having an open architecture.

“I know that Vaughn has quite a bit of experience in technology world, having been head of operations and as chief technology. He also was instrumental to help move EPA to the cloud with Microsoft Office 365,” the source said. “Cloud will be one of a few priorities. He’s well positioned to step into that role and know people, the organization and having been outside of OEI for last few years and consuming their services, he has a viewpoint of being inside and outside. I think he’s well positioned to step into that role and identify where they should be focusing.”

Noga will discuss his priorities this week in Dallas, Texas during EPA’s annual IT meeting.

The former official said it may be two years until EPA really understands the impact of the change.

“Because the CIO didn’t have a seat at the table when decisions are made, EPA will build out the technology and then there will be audits, and only then you will know if this change was a problem,” the source said. “Former Administrator Scott Pruitt was supportive of this change. With current acting Administration Andrew Wheeler being a former EPA official, he’s at least grounded in the mission of the agency. But I don’t think he will stop this OEI and OARM reorganization. It’s too far down the path.”

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