3 takeaways from the FITARA 2.0 hearing

House lawmakers are making good on their promise to haul up federal chief information officers to ensure they are meeting the spirit and intent of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA).

The second report card day for most agencies showed slight improvements across most agencies.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s scorecard showed on the surface that the Commerce Department remains the standout among all agencies, and NASA has the biggest gap to make up.

But dig a little deeper in what the CIOs from Commerce, NASA, the Energy Department and the Labor Department told members of the subcommittees on IT and Government Operations and you’ll find real change happening.

Last week’s hearing was the first update on agency progress to reform how they manage and buy IT since November.

Here are my three big takeaways from the FITARA 2.0 hearing:

Just a little patience

This was not a “red light” hearing by any means—you know those congressional events when the TV red light goes on the “Mr. Hyde” come out of all lawmakers. All the members of the subcommittee asked measured questions from the panel, which also included the Government Accountability Office. Take the questioning of NASA CIO Renee Wynn as one example.

Instead of going after Wynn, who inherited a mess at the space agency, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Government Operations subcommittee, asked plainly, “Do you know what it will take to get from a F to a C?”

Wynn responded, “We are not proud of our grade.”

Meadows interrupted saying, “I’m not here to beat you up.”

This was the way many of the discussions went during the 90 minute hearing.

The civil discourse between lawmakers and witnesses is both refreshing and much needed to keep the ball moving around FITARA.

The four CIOs were able to show real change—more on that later in this posting—and lawmakers seem to understand change will not happen quickly.

“This is more about accountability and for us, we want to see progress,” Meadows said. “We will work with the GAO on a number of fronts. I’ve already been talking to appropriators on a number of fronts. If you are willing to do a good job, I’m willing to be your advocate.”

Change is real for CIOs

Over the last several weeks, I’ve offered several examples of how the roots of IT reform are taking hold. The hearing offered an even clearer view of the change that’s happening.

Let’s start with Commerce where Steve Cooper now has authority over all IT spending worth more than $10 million. A memo from Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker changed the approval levels from the previous threshold of IT spending of more than $75 million.

“Secretary Pritzker and Deputy Secretary [Bruce] Andrews strongly support FITARA and made it clear to the department’s executive leadership that FITARA is the responsibility not only of the CIO, but all their senior staff,” Cooper said. “Since October 2015, the department’s FITARA team, representing my office and the department’s budget, acquisition, personnel and legal offices, has been meeting weekly to ensure the full implementation of our FITARA plan and FITARA across the Department of Commerce. I have named one of my senior staff, <b>Erin Cavanaugh</b>, our full time program manager for FITARA implementation, making the department one of only a few department to create full time FITARA program official.”

Cooper said new policies or upcoming changes will give him and future CIOs full visibility into the agency’s entire IT budget to help identify opportunities for collaboration across all 12 of bureaus, and oversight of all Senior Executive service IT and CIO-titled positions. He said an updated IT workforce plan is in the works and will help address critical hiring and the retention of key technology positions over the next six months.

While Commerce is well ahead of most other agencies, even those that are struggling came to the hearing with examples of real progress.

At NASA—the only agency to receive an “F” grade–Wynn, the CIO, said she developed a new IT oversight and implementation strategy, which will make information technology be seen more of an agency resource. She said the business services assessment (BSA) outlines a series of steps the agency will take to optimize and protect its IT assets.

Wynn also said under FITARA and the BSA, she now has the authority to approve all IT spending—mission and non-mission related. She also will be held accountable for managing cost, schedule and performance through a new portfolio review process.

“Our transformation plan gives me a lot of authority that is aligned with the FTIARA law as well as some things NASA saw needed to change,” she said. “At this juncture, changing our governance structure, changing the way we look at the budget as well as taking a look at how we do portfolio review, that feels like it will be an excellent start for me at NASA.”

Dawn Leaf, the Labor Department CIO, and Michael Johnson, the Energy Department CIO, both of which struggled to get their initial FITARA implementation plans approved by the Office of Management and Budget, not only finalized their strategies, but provided lawmakers with examples of ongoing change.

“We have expanded our processes to ensure CIO involvement in all phases of annual and multi-year IT planning, programming, budgeting and decision making,” Johnson said. “The department also has developed an enterprise plan for review and approval of IT acquisitions that covers acquisition plans, statements of work, evaluations and selection criteria.”

He also added DoE is developing a cyber workforce plan to increase the CIO’s involvement in hiring, recruitment and retention of IT personnel.

At Labor, Leaf said FITARA will provide structure for the agency to manage organization and technology change.

“We are planning a 2017 through 2019 unified communications project to redesign, modernize and consolidate nine decades-old networks in over 600 locations throughout the U.S.,” she said. “It’s not only critical for security, but it also allows us to reduce cost. We will be able to reduce 85 percent of our voice circuits and 50 percent of our phone management costs.”

CIO authorities under the microscope next

The Government Accountability Office and committee lawmakers made it clear that their next focused area of oversight will be to measure how agencies are giving their CIOs the authorities required under FITARA.

David Powner, GAO director of IT issues, said agencies have assessed their gaps in CIO authorities and should have plans to fill those holes. He said GAO plans to look how agencies are meeting the requirements for CIOs under FITARA.

“We need to find some way to score that. If you don’t fix the CIO authority issue, and the cultures and bureaucracies at all these departments and agencies, you will not be able accomplish FITARA in all these areas as well as you possibly could,” he said. “Looking at these plans and measuring whether CIOs authorities are truly being tackled is critical.”

Meadows specifically asked Leaf about where she sits in the Labor organization. She reports directly to the assistant secretary for management.

“We are adding the CIO to the department management meeting where the agencies leads meet regularly,” Leaf said. “We have an action item to reassess this in 2017 with respect to the reporting structure.”

Previously at Labor, the assistant secretary for management also was the CIO, but the department changed the role in 2014 decoupling the two positions.

“Knowing the reporting is a critical appointment after you are gone or those who you report to are gone, I would encourage while you have a cooperative mood to express the sense of Congress that that reporting relationship is being looked at,” Meadows said.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), co-author of FITARA, made it clear to Energy that the carve out in the fiscal 2016 appropriations bill for the national laboratories is not acceptable nor will it be tolerated going forward.

Connolly said to Johnson that while the exemption for the labs is not his fault, he wanted Johnson to take the message back to the labs and department executives.

“We are not going to stand for it. We will revisit this issue,” Connolly said. “I think this will be a broad bi-partisan assault on the national labs if they try it again, and if we have to go toe-to-toe with the appropriations committee, we will do so because it’s manifestly evident that others are benefiting from this effort.”

Rep. Will Hurd, chairman of the IT subcommittee, said he’s interested in finding out more about how many CIOs report to their agency’s CFO instead of the deputy secretary or secretary.

Powner said GAO didn’t have updated information on that, but believes based on previous work that having CIOs report to the deputy secretary gives them the right amount of visibility.

“At FITARA 3, I think it would be interesting to have some of the CFOs sitting alongside their CIO colleagues, having these conversations,” said Hurd.

Connolly built on what Hurd said around the CIOs standing. He said lawmakers designed FITARA with flexibility so each agency can work out how best to give CIOs the necessary responsibilities and authorities.

“Will that flexible legislative framework work? Or do we have to resort to codifying and deciding by fiat?” he said.

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