IT modernization, CIO authorities and other nuggets from the 2019 funding bill

Now that another shutdown has been avoided, and agencies and contractors can get back to the real work of government, it’s time to dig deep into the fiscal 2019 omnibus spending bill for technology nuggets.

Like any worthwhile mining operation, it may be some time until we really know what we have, but at first glance, there’s a lot of gold in them thar’ hills.

The first nugget you’ve probably seen is the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) receiving $25 million for 2019. That was a big drop from 2018 when the TMF Board had $100 million to loan out to agencies. By the way, the board still has about $10 million in 2018 funding that must go out the door – so we can say for this year the total amount is $35 million.

It’s a big drop from the Trump administration’s request of $210 million, and even from the House Appropriations Committee’s initial allocation of $150 million. The silver lining here is the Senate had zeroed out the fund so getting $25 million is progress.

Once you get past this initial TMF vein, the mining operation uncovers an interesting provision in the state/foreign operations section of the mountainous bill.

Lawmakers limited the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development’s use of the no-interest loan mechanism.

“None of the funds made available by this Act and prior Acts making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations and related programs may be used by an agency to submit a project proposal to the Technology Modernization Board for funding from the Technology Modernization Fund unless, not later than 15 days in advance of submitting the project proposal to the Board, the head of the agency (i) notifies the Committees on Appropriations of the proposed submission of the project proposal; and (ii) submits to the Committees on Appropriations a copy of the project proposal,” the bill states.

Additionally, legislators added that even if the board approves State or USAID’s project, the agency head must submit “to the committees on appropriations a copy of the approved project proposal, including the terms of reimbursement of funding received for the project; and (ii) agrees to submit to the committees on appropriations a copy of each report relating to the project that the head of the agency submits to the board.”

No other section of the omnibus spending bill has a similar provision, and there is no more discussion in the current omnibus bill nor the previous House or Senate reports issued in summer 2018 about why lawmakers have concerns about State or USAID using the TMF.

At the same time, miners uncovered another vein of gold that takes us in a totally different direction. This one seems to reiterate and reinforce the State Department’s chief information officer’s authorities.

Lawmakers wrote: “None of the funds appropriated in title I of this act under the heading “Administration of Foreign Affairs” may be made available for a new major information technology investment without the concurrence of the CIO, Department of State. (B) In complying with the requirements of this paragraph, the CIO, Department of State, shall consider whether a new major information technology investment- (i) is consistent with the department Information Technology Strategic Plan; (ii) maintains consolidated control over enterprise IT functions or improves operational maintenance; (iii) improves Department of State resiliency to a cyber-attack; (iv) reduces department of State IT costs over the long-term; and (v) is in accordance with the Federal 6 Acquisition Regulation (FAR), including FAR Part 6 regarding competition requirements.”

It’s well known in the federal IT community that the State CIO has struggled for decades to oversee IT investments by the foreign service.

Former State CIO Frontis Wiggins sought to create IT franchises where the headquarters’ CIO office acts like the parent company and provides the basic services to the franchisees. That idea never made much progress as Wiggins left before he implemented it. Now State is going down the more traditional path of trying to convince it’s powerful brethren that back-office shared services is a better approach to give the CIO more visibility and oversight.

Congress possibly just got tired of these approaches that made little or no difference, and brought down the hammer in a different way to empower the agency CIO.

CIO powers continued

It’s not just at State that lawmakers used the omnibus to reiterate and reemphasize the role and authorities of agency CIOs.

In the Agriculture Department’s section, lawmakers added a provision to ensure that the CIO, Gary Washington in this case, and the executive investment review board approves any new or significant upgrade of IT.

But then legislators took an interesting turn in the provision.

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“None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this act may be transferred to the Office of the CIO without written notification to and the prior approval of the committees on appropriations of both houses of Congress: Provided further, That, notwithstanding section 11319 of title 40, United States Code, none of the funds available to the Department of Agriculture for information technology shall be obligated for projects, contracts, or other agreements over $25,000 prior to receipt of written approval by the CIO: Provided further, that the CIO may authorize an agency to obligate funds without written approval from the CIO projects, contracts, or other agreements up to $250,000 based upon the performance of an agency measured against the performance plan requirements described in the explanatory statement accompanying Public Law 113- 5 235.”

So let’s break that down, the Appropriations Committees must approve any transfer of funds to the CIO, but the CIO may approve any IT purchases over $25,000 and in some cases up to $250,000.

Again, this is why miners don’t always know what they have until there is further inspection to know if it’s gold or pyrite.

Lawmakers also reiterated — in Section 623 — the authorities CIOs received in the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), the Clinger-Cohen Act and several White House policies and executive orders.

It’s unclear why there is this need to reiterate a law in another law, but as miners, we have to keep on digging to find out what’s underneath this layer of rock.

IT modernization funding in different accounts

Sometimes you have to blast through other rock formations to reach new sources of minerals. This is the case for IT modernization. While the TMF is specifically designed to provide agencies with a loan to further existing initiatives, the Office of Management and Budget and the General Services Administration also have other accounts that can further the goals of getting off legacy systems.

OMB received a $9.5 million increase over 2018 in the IT Oversight and Reform (ITOR) fund to $28.5 million.

“OMB is expected to utilize the funding provided to continue oversight of federal IT activities and investments, including the management of the IT Dashboard, the OMB policy library, and IT policy compliance tracking,” the appropriators wrote.

While this funding can’t be used as a loan, OMB can provide agencies help in other ways to make IT modernization easier by updating acquisition policies for buying technology or the creation of training courses.

Additionally, GSA received a boost to the $55 million Federal Citizen Services Fund, which is $5 million more than it received last year.

GSA said in its 2019 budget justification that it will use the fund to pay for the Federal Risk Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) and to further the Login.gov initiative.

Both could be key pieces to help agencies modernize services as we’ve seen with 128 cloud services approved through FedRAMP and another 73 in the process. Login.gov has been picked up on the SAM.gov, USAJobs.gov and Trusted Traveler websites.

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