government IT

Is Your Agency’s Culture Undermining Basic IT Hygiene?

If you tuned in to last week’s House subcommittee hearing on information technology and government operations, then you saw firsthand the cultural Achilles heel of IT progress in government.

On full display were the recurring issues that continue to throw a wrench in agencies’ ability to properly manage the government’s more than $90 billion IT portfolio:

  • A lack of empowerment for agencies’ chief information officers to not only see what is being spent on IT but to also have a say in how that money is spent.
  • Failure to establish flexible ways — outside of the arduous budget process — for agencies to invest in technology. One example is the creation of working capital funds designated to support the government’s transition from old, obsolete technology to more modern solutions.
  • The lack of a comprehensive and regularly updated inventory of software licenses that agencies buy and use. Many agencies are failing in this area, particularly the Defense Department, which accounts for nearly half of the government’s multibillion IT budget.

The items listed above are just a few of the areas that agencies were measured against in the latest Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) scorecard released May 22. This is the sixth iteration of the scorecard, which provides a snapshot of how well agencies are implementing requirements outlined in the 2014 FITARA legislation and other key areas. FITARA, among other things, requires that department CIOs be empowered to review and approve IT contracts, ensure projects are being developed in shorter increments and to root out waste and duplication in IT budgets.

Overall, five agencies improved their scores, eight agencies remained the same and 11 of them saw their scores decrease. (See the detailed FITARA scorecard.)

“I want to note that we assign these grades not to shame agencies but rather to incentivize certain behaviors that will save money and increase security,” said Rep. William Hurd, who chairs the IT Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Part of the concern expressed by lawmakers is that the old way of doing business and old mindsets are at odds with the promise of progress that these scorecards hold. The hope is that the FITARA scorecards won’t be viewed as a compliance exercise but rather as a catalyst for lasting change.

“We are trying to go from just keeping track of basic stuff to keep track of the things that add value,” said Hurd, “to ensure IT organizations are able to articulate their value to the agency and the broader federal government.”

Hurd’s comments came during the second half of the hearing, which featured a panel with the Defense Department CIO, Deputy Chief Financial Officer and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition.

DoD was the only agency to receive a failing grade and has historically been exempt from meeting the same requirements as civilian agencies, including empowering the agency CIO. The department currently has about 35 CIOs, and that doesn’t include the services. In terms of FITARA scores, DoD was the only agency that received a failing grade, which has been the case for the last three scorecards.

“This is not a scarlet letter,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-VA, said during the DoD-focused portion of the hearing. “We are trying to move every agency to a point of performance that can make us all proud. I think we’ve been surprised and bitterly disappointed from the lack of cooperation.”

Connolly noted that “sooner or later there will be consequences,” but did not say specifically what that could entail.

At least from the perspective of DoD’s new CIO, there seems to be a willingness to tackle some of the basic issues outlined in the scorecard. In preparing for the hearing, CIO Dana Deasy said he sat down with his team and asked them a question: Putting the scorecard aside, aren’t these fundamental things we need to be a great IT team?

Deasy, who had only been on the job for 13 days at the time of the hearing, said he wants to make sure his team is doing what’s right for the right reasons, not just to fill out a scorecard. “That will drive the right behaviors that will allow us to get to better outcomes.”

Deasy promised lawmakers that by December DoD would do baseline accounting of all the software it uses. But there was less clarity around what DoD would do internally to ensure that its CIO had the proper authorities. Historically, CIOs at DoD could review IT investments but didn’t have the power to halt them. However, the current management team can change that, said Mark Easton, DoD’s Deputy CFO.

“Organizations don’t like to change, [and] you are a change agent,” Rep. Greg Gianforte told Deasy. He added, “DoD is not that different. The same practices applied in the private sector will work in DoD.”

In terms of CIO authority, Gianforte summed it by saying, a “CIO is only CIO if they have the authority to be CIO, not just a seat at the table but the veto vote.”

Interested in similar articles on this topic? Check out these stories:

Executive Order Reaffirms CIO Budget, Hiring Authorities

Federal CIOs and Their Evolving Role in Government

Federal CIOs Define What It Means to Have a Seat at the Table

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