FITARA does not give federal CIOs total IT budget authority

Sorry, but CIOs will not get the budget authority everyone has been reporting they will under the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). Now that I have not buried the lead, a little context. One of the more intriguing recent Government Accountability Office look-sees didn’t get enough attention. I featured the report on the Federal Drive when I interviewed GAO’s Dave Powner, but I hope more agency executives take a look. The gist of the report is this: Federal chief information officers have to file a lot of reports every year, and many of them are at least a partial waste of time. CIOs must file 36 mandatory reports, and a survey GAO conducted shows CIOs think 24 of the reports don’t help them much in managing their responsibilities as they relate to their departments’ priorities.

Federal Drive host Tom Temin
One big reason is that many of the reports concern progress on generic, governmentwide requirements — IT strategic planning, capital and investment management, cybersecurity, IT acquisition, and e-government. GAO points out, the Office of Management and Budget directs CIOs to concentrate on things like proper governance, meaning budget, acquisition and portfolio analysis. Or commodity IT, meaning data center consolidation, cutting redundant systems and using more shared services. That’s only natural, given OMB’s governmentwide view. It’s a prime example of how large bureaucracies, both private and public, default to detailed process to achieve goals. The recipe approach indeed works in many domains where you want absolutely repeatable outcomes. If you are producing 1,000 wedding cakes a week or 1,000 airliners a year, process is paramount. For CIOs, the problem with all this process and reporting, aside from the cost and questionable relevance of much of it, stems from how little use it can be in resolving department-specific challenges. Filing 36 reports a year didn’t get the Veterans Affairs Department to Nirvana in scheduling and treating veterans, or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services wasting taxpayer money through improper payments — they account for 15 percent of all improper payments made by government. It won’t get NASA to Mars any time sooner, nor will it save State Department systems from being turned into a botnet for Russian hackers. The reporting questions came just as it dawned on CIOs that the FITARA I mentioned at the beginning, is law. Now CIOs are awaiting OMB guidance on how to implement what passed as a large amendment to the 2015 National Defense Acquisition Act. Some CIOs are asking what FITARA will really change. Its most widely-quoted visible provision gives CIOs authority over departments’ IT budgets. That authority was not given by the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which made CIOs the primary advisers to agency heads on IT architectures and investments. But it left primary budget authority with chief financial officers, consistent with Title 35 of Chapter 44 of the U.S. Code. CFOs understandably like and defend their budget authority, as many a CIO has learned. In my reading of the law (scroll WAY down to Section 5101), CIOs still don’t get total budget authority. FITARA elevates CIOs such that “amounts appropriated … for information technology shall be allocated … in such a manner as specified by, or approved by, the Chief Information Officer of the agency in consultation with the Chief Financial Office of the agency and budget officials” (emphasis mine). So the complex interplay among OMB, CFOs and CIOs is still there, but now CIOs have more weight. What actually changes will depend on CIOs making the case for how they allocate IT spending. To the extent everyone else involved in the decision agrees on specific agency priorities, that shouldn’t be a problem. A couple of CIOs I’ve spoken to note that because of the highly federated nature of their departments, there’s a long tradition of autonomy by large agencies over their own IT. That won’t be easy to change. Down-a-notch CIOs won’t give up easily. Department CIOs don’t want to become clerks, signing off on every little thing an agency level CIO decides to buy. If title defines the job, agency and bureau CIOs will have “deputy,” “assistant” or “associate” added to their titles. That might help underscore the superior authority of the departmental CIO. FITARA might bring the beginning of the end for so many CIO reports. Section 5102 gives the CIO Council a bigger job. It’s supposed to “develop cross-agency portfolio management practices” and “issue guidelines and practices for infrastructure and common information technology applications.” All of this is to be “used as the basis for comparing performance across diverse missions and operations in various agencies.” I’m thinking maybe the CIO Council, which of course is made up of CIOs, could take over some of the common reports departmental CIOs are obligated with. Then, CIOs would have more time to think about specific departmental missions and playing nice with the CFOs. There’s much more to FITARA. The law pushes data center consolidation, rationality in acquisition of software licenses, cloud computing, and reduction of duplicative contracts. Nearly every item in FITARA has been proposed either in law or by executive branch initiative going back to something called Reform ’88, launched in 1982. It made the cover of the first issue of Government Computer News, but rated only page 7 in Computerworld.

Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.

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