Transportation finding the right balance as it reforms IT procurement

The Transportation Department is an outlier when it comes to implementing the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). It’s not that Richard McKinney, the DoT chief information officer, and other senior executives at the agency don’t believe in the spirit and intent of the law. It’s just DoT must deal with its 800-pound gorilla in the form of the Federal Aviation Administration and the fact that the FAA comes under a different set of rules than other parts of the department.

McKinney raised some eyebrows at the AFCEA Bethesda breakfast last week, saying the FAA’s lawyers decided the administration will not have to follow FITARA the same way as the rest of government.

McKinney clarified his statement after the event to say, yes, the FAA is following FITARA–for human resources, for planning, for accountability. The one area the FAA is different is on the procurement front where FAA CIO Tina Amereihn will approve all IT acquisitions instead of McKinney. FITARA requires agency CIOs to approve all IT spending, but includes the ability for the headquarters CIO to delegate some of that responsibility to the bureau level.

McKinney called the change a customization of FITARA based on current laws.

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McKinney said because of the way Congress created the laws governing FAA acquisitions, administration lawyers and DoT executives decided best way forward was to have him delegate the IT spending approval authority to Amereihn.

“The two of us, we really think a lot alike,” he said. “She didn’t like the ‘us vs. them’ way of thinking either. The two of us said ‘let’s change that.’ It’s not going to happen overnight. She’s trying to create an enterprise shared service environment at FAA. I’m trying to do that with the rest of our models. The thing that Tina and I are trying to figure out is where we can do things together and to each other’s benefit. It’s a good working relationship.”

So DoT’s approach to “customize” FITARA led me to think about other agencies that could be pushing for similar approaches.

One government source familiar with FITARA plans says they are not aware of any other agencies asking for similar authorities.

The Energy Department’s national labs tried to put a rider in its fiscal 2016 spending bill to get out of implementing the law. But the White House came out against such as carve out in its Statement of Administration Policy earlier this summer.

Tony Scott, the federal CIO, said in late August that agency baselines comparing their current state to the desired state laid out in the FITARA implementation guidance were good.

“There are none that are perfect. You can see every agency’s personality show up in the plan that they have submitted. Right now, we are reviewing those plans. We are providing some feedback to the agencies to get more information about why they said some of the things that they said—both positive and negative,” he said at the 930Gov conference during a live presentation of Ask the CIO. “We’re seeing opportunities where our guidance could be clarified more, where there was some confusion. And we’ve seen some great examples of agencies really this on and being very explicit about how they are changing their governance process and the role of the CIO at the agency. I’d say overall I’d give it probably a B-plus in terms of the work I’ve seen.”

OMB is expected to release the agency baselines before the end of calendar year 2015.

Scott said getting the baseline right, especially around how agencies are spending their IT budgets is even more important than ever. He said to change the cost curve toward more development, modernization and enhancement (DME) and less operations and maintenance (O&M) must happen sooner than later.

In fact, McKinney said he just kicked off such a campaign to swing the DME vs. O&M pendulum the other way.

“I’m putting the brakes on us buying any more hardware. We are not going to do that for a while and we are going to see how that works. We’re not not going to need hardware, but we are not going to own it. We are going to get out of that business and get to the point where my office is managing and brokering services,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy, but…if you take DoT’s operating and maintenance spend, it’s climbing and our modernization spend is going down. That’s just unsustainable. It’s headed to where we if we were not to reverse this—and we are—but if we were not to reverse this, we would end up having no money for modernization and all our money would be Band-Aiding what we had. And that’s unacceptable.”

He said he’s telling the business units they need to provide their IT spend plan and if there is any money that extends current on-premise infrastructure, it will not be approved.

“The only thing I will approve is a path away from that,” McKinney said. “I’m at the very beginning of it. I can’t give you a report card right now. Everybody’s eyes are big and I think it’s energizing some folks.”

OMB is expected to release new data on agency O&M vs. DME spend in the coming months, and a plan or approach to stop the support of legacy systems.

Congress expected FITARA to help with that by giving CIOs more insight into when and how the IT budget is spent.

But FITARA is a solid year or more from really having that intended impact so in the meantime expect a more directed approach from OMB later this fall.

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.