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Communicating IT Reform Beyond the Office of the CIO

This blog post is en excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide FITARA: What You Need to Know. Download the full guide here

Most conversations about the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act focus on CIOs and the duties and authorities they have under the law.

But the reality is IT reform cannot and will not succeed without every office and employee chipping in. Everyone has a role to play. That’s why communicating IT reform and its impact beyond the Office of the CIO are vital. Here are the key points all employees must understand:

What’s FITARA really about?

FITARA is about improving the way government buys and manages nearly $90 billion worth of information technology resources.

It’s no secret that agencies have wasted billions of dollars on failed projects that offer little to no value for government employees and citizens. The main issues are a lack of disciplined and effective management and the proper governance structure and policies to ensure ongoing success. To address these chronic issues, FITARA makes clear that CIOs are responsible for overseeing the department’s IT portfolio. This isn’t about creating layers of bureaucracy but rather empowering strong leaders to review and approve IT budget requests and contracts, find areas of duplication and opportunities to consolidate, ensure modern IT solutions are delivered faster and address risks that could potentially sabotage a project.

Can you provide some examples of how FITARA affects employees?

If your office or program relies on IT, you will be impacted by FITARA in some way.

You may not feel the direct impact, depending on where you sit in an organization, but there will likely be changes in the way your office budgets for and acquires IT resources. The goal is to make spending details more transparent, so there’s a consolidated view of what the agency is buying. As we mentioned earlier, IT spending is happening outside the CIO office. Included in that spending is shadow IT — a broad term for the technologies that people are purchasing under the radar, or IT components that are embedded in larger systems and not being reported as IT spending, said Dave Powner, Director of Information Technology Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office.

Chances are you’ve either been involved in or know of a hardware or software solution that rolled forward without the blessing of the IT department. Under FITARA, CIOs want to bring that spending out of the shadows. But what if you’re not buying IT under the radar? Why should you care? Well, shadow IT can pose major security risks to everyone. “If you don’t know it’s being built, you can’t ensure it’s being secured,” NOAA’s Goldstein said. Also, as a user of IT, you want to have access to modern, secure technology when you need it, not years down the road, right? That’s what FITARA aims to do by encouraging incremental development and better IT acquisition, so you have the tools you need to do your job.

Does FITARA only pertain to CIOs?

The short answer: absolutely not.

Everyone has a role to play. It’s about employees working together — program managers, business owners, HR specialists, acquisition professionals, finance professionals and every IT user — to ensure that technology is helping employees do their jobs better. Think about it: IT enables nearly everything we do nowadays. But the CIO isn’t the only one buying IT. There are a number of them who don’t control the entire IT budget. Much of the spending is happening outside of their offices, which makes it harder to root out duplication and manage risk tied to those IT investments.

FITARA was designed to rein in this kind of one-off spending by empowering the CIO to be accountable for IT purchasing and boosting collaboration and communication agencywide about what’s being bought and who’s responsible for managing it (we’ll get into cross-agency collaboration in the next section). CIOs can also delegate certain responsibilities, such as ongoing engagement with program managers, to a representative who can help minimize the chance of bottlenecks. But CIOs are ultimately responsible for ensuring tasks are executed.

How can agencies better communicate the FITARA message?

You have to take this message on the road.

USDA’s Hunter put it this way: “When I hear people say that they don’t really understand what FITARA does, it worries me. We have people scratching their heads, which means that we haven’t gone low enough. It starts at the CIO, but then it doesn’t need to stop there.” There’s a lot everyone can learn from USDA’s approach going forward to keep everyone informed. The department has a dedicated Executive Director of FITARA Operations, Flip Anderson (Download the full guide and read the section on best practices to learn more about USDA’s FITARA operations team).

His team is working with agency chief executives to solidify processes, procedures and policies for adopting FITARA. Once that’s done, his team will go on a roadshow to meet with all employees at component agencies and staff offices. “The policies are going to trickle down to them, and they want explanations as to what that means to them, what do they actually have to do,” Anderson said. “We’re not just talking about IT staff. The roadshow is for every employee who has questions.”

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