IT modernization is a priority for Biden’s OMB pick, but she acknowledges funding challenges

Senators on Tuesday were eager for Neera Tanden, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget, to lend her opinions on improving several longstanding IT modernization and cybersecurity challenges in government.

But when it comes to resolving those challenges, there are signs Congress isn’t quite as anxious to address the elephant in the room.

“The recent SolarWinds incident tells us we have a lot of work to do,” Tanden said Tuesday during her nomination hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “If I’m privileged to serve as OMB director, one of my top priorities will be to work on the issue of cybersecurity and do so with this committee.”

Modernizing legacy IT systems, she said, will allow agencies to better connect with their customers’ needs. She pointed to the $9 billion request for the technology modernization fund, which Biden included in part of his COVID-19 relief proposal.

“We recognize the importance of this modernization during a global pandemic where we need to make sure that our agencies’ information and essentially the public’s privacy is protected and protected well,” Tanden said.

But as Federal News Network previously reported, House and Senate sources have said the current thinking for the American Rescue Plan doesn’t include the extra IT modernization funding. Members of Congress may, the sources said, look for other legislative vehicles to include the funding or find a way to add it to budget resolutions later.

“The real challenge here is, frankly, it takes an investment of resources in one year, because we don’t have capital budgets or systems that create some disincentives,” Tanden said. “But I appreciate the resources in the technology modernization fund, and it’s one of the reasons why the president has proposed a substantial increase in TMF, as well as the Information Technology Oversight and Reform [fund].”

Tanden spoke on multiple occasions about the need to adopt more modern tools to better communicate with and serve the public.

“It’s also important that we make our government more consumer friendly,” she said. “One of the big differences between the United States and other countries is that our government can be woefully inefficient and ineffective because we don’t really use technology effectively. It’s an irony in the United States that we have some of the greatest technological innovations and some of the most technologically innovative companies, and [in] our country and government, you still can’t access information. Small businesses can’t find out if they can get access to a small business loan as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Biden’s American Rescue Plan included $200 million in funding for ITOR, which the administration said would help hire more cybersecurity and engineering experts.

“We have learned a fair amount from the U.S. Digital Service, that you can attract top talent to solve problems in the federal government,” Tanden said. “USDS has been effective in working with agencies in working with agencies on … killer challenges around technology.”

Committee members spent part of the hearing questioning Tanden about past social media posts that were critical of Republican members of Congress.

“Obviously President Biden has talked a lot about tone. You walk into this being hired with a very, very different tone than what President Biden says that he is looking for,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said. “That’s what stood out in this process to us. We’re hopeful that if confirmed this is a very different thing. Something that this committee asks pretty frequently of nominees is will you commit to working across the aisle?”

Tanden acknowledged her role as an OMB director will be different from the role she played in recent years as the president for the Center for American Progress, where she advocated for progressive policy.

“I do think the last several years have been very polarizing, and I apologize for my language that has contributed to that,” she said. “I know it’s on me to demonstrate to this committee and to Republican members and Democratic members I can work with anyone. That burden is on my shoulders, and it’s one that I plan to take on.”

Senators didn’t ask Tanden about her plans or her approach for the federal workforce, though Sen. Gary Peters, leading the hearing for the first time as the committee’s chairman, said she’ll be a key player in “reinvigorating the federal workforce, which has been decimated in recent years.”

Biden recently appointed Pam Coleman as OMB’s new associate director for performance management, the agency’s point person on federal workforce issues.

“The Biden-Harris administration has made it a priority to protect, empower, and rebuild the federal workforce, and Pam will play a vital role in this urgent task,” an OMB spokesman said in a statement. “A respected and dedicated public servant with significant government experience, Pam is well-equipped to help restore trust with the tremendously talented federal civil workforce and ensure our government works for all Americans.”

The Washington Post first reported Coleman’s appointment.

Coleman comes from the New Mexico state government, where she led the personnel office for the last two years. She also served on the Department of Homeland Security’s agency review team for the Biden transition.

Coleman had multiple roles in the Obama administration, including as a leadership development team lead in the White House Presidential Personnel Office and as a liaison to DHS.

The OMB associate director for performance management is usually the agency’s go-to on everything from federal pay and benefits to hiring and labor relations.

Biden hasn’t yet nominated a new director for the Office of Personnel Management.

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