VanRoekel not confident IT reform bill would be effective

Federal Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel says good management policies should be enough to improve how agencies buy, operate and deliver technology.

White House support for the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) is not getting any stronger. For the first time, Steven VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer, makes the Obama administration’s position crystal clear.

“I don’t actually think we necessarily need legislation in this space,” VanRoekel said. “I think the increasing pressure on the role that technology is playing is going to take us — with good management practices [and] with good policy — is going to take us in the right direction of where we need to go. So I don’t think legislation is necessarily required to get there.”

VanRoekel’s previous public statements have not strongly supported legislative IT reform. He said in July 2013 that the administration had concerns over the lack of coverage for the Defense Department in the bill.

In January 2013, he said the current laws are not the problem and the Office of Management and Budget has the authority and ability to improve oversight of IT spending.

Steven VanRoekel, federal chief information officer

Finally, in May 2014, VanRoekel told Senate lawmakers that technology moves too quickly and legislation can’t keep up with those changes.

But as the Senate more actively considers a version of FITARA, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has held multiple hearings over IT issues in the last few months — VanRoekel is making the administration’s stance distinct.

The Housed passed a version of FITARA as part of the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act in May.

“If you do approach legislation, the myriad of the influence needs to be thought through, I think in more of a broad brush,” VanRoekel said. “Just going in and saying, ‘CIOs need to have a seat at the table,’ which is very, very important to me and something I promote through PortoflioStat, but was the first policy memo issued out of my office during my tenure here was really centered around CIO authorities and I really feel that strongly about it. I not only wanted to send that strong message, but it’s something we reinforced ever since. We need to think about the authorizing motion of the CIO sitting in that agency, but also are there financial constraints that we start to wrap around that.”

VanRoekel said there are several questions that the legislation may try to address or answer, but he’s not sure it can.

  • Do CIOs have the ability to move budgets in a way or create incentive structures that are going to get things done?
  • Do they have a seat at the table?
  • What’s the more centralized role in acquisition for CIOs?
  • Do CIOs have flexible hiring authorities and other things that they need, in probably what’s the most competitive human capital market in the country, the tech space?
  • Do CIOs and the leadership team around them have the right people to get the job done?
  • Are CIOs getting the right kind of companies to work with the government?
  • Do CIOs have right processes in place to be successful?

“It’s much more complex than just going in and shifting the way titles are done or generically giving them a seat at the table, but making that seat at the table more downstream from an appropriations process,” he said. “We’ve got to think about it in a more comprehensive way.”

He added Congress’ approach to FITARA sends the right message, but it’s the specifics in this, or any bill, that really matters.

“I really welcome and look forward to working with Congress on really thinking through this myriad of considerations in this space,” VanRoekel said. “It’s great that Congress is taking this up. It shows the emphasis on technology, the role of the CIO and the potential we have with technology.”

If the House and Senate agree on IT reform legislation, it would be the first major bill in this area since the E-Government Act of 2002.

In the meantime, VanRoekel launched the Smarter IT Delivery Agenda in May as another evolution to the administration’s overall reform effort.

He said the 25-point IT reform plan, the institutionalization of TechStat and now PortfolioStat and other related efforts are part of the changing the way agencies buy, operate and deliver services using IT.

“Now we stand at a new inflection point now that we’ve achieved this flat budget since 2009, that we’ve got broad brush innovation out there through the Digital Strategy, cloud, cyber and other things in that our renewed focus in building on that momentum needs to really be about effectiveness, really shifting from efficiency and broad innovation to more targeted effectiveness, thinking about what is the mission of these agencies, how are they doing that and how can we as the federal community really focus on driving mission success for our customer, the American people,” he said. “That’s what really this IT agenda is all about, that shift of effectiveness.”

That move to effectiveness is marbled through recent OMB guidance.

In the PortfolioStat 2014 guidance, VanRoekel said agencies should identify high priority mission investments.

“What I want to know if we take say 20-or-30 investments across government that are the most important what would that look like?” he said. “I’m asking agencies to identify those for me. On those, what I want to do is really evolve from what has been really a reactive stance through our TechStat process through the efforts to go in and help agencies after maybe something isn’t going as well as it should, to really more of a proactive stance and get more involved up front. What agencies can expect is we will help them with playbooks, best practices and in some cases, if our FY 2015 budget is realized, this digital service to be able to help them come in and bring expert resources to help analyze and make sure these things are proactively are on track and following a formula that we know succeeds.”

He said PortfolioStat and other notable projects, such as, are making discussions with federal senior leaders who don’t normally pay close attention to IT, really take a second look at the role technology is playing in their agency.

VanRoekel said he’s seeing a movement of the culture norm of technology from just being a discretionary thing to one that is strategic because of the broad pervasiveness of mobile devices and cyber attacks.

Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel also joined Federal News Radio for an online chat to discuss the White House’s latest initiatives for improving federal IT. Read an archived version of the chat.


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