F orgive me for being a little late this year, but I finally got some insights into the annual game of keep-away the White House likes to play with the press around the budget passback. In my case, my goal for the past decade has been to scrounge and rummage around the IT community for details on technology policy changes that will be part of the President’s budget request coming in a few weeks.
Over the previous few years, the IT passback has been, well, underwhelming to say the least. The federal chief information officer at the Office of Management and Budget stopped using the IT passback to introduce new policy priorities a few years ago. The policy document became more of a reiteration of what’s expected over the next year around cybersecurity or shared services or open data.
But I have good news, the IT passback is back! Well, sort of.
Multiple sources in the federal technology community confirmed the while the IT passback was mostly humdrum, there was one significant policy decision.
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By Oct. 1, OMB is instructing agencies to set up their own digital services group modeled after those at the General Services Administration under 18F and the Veterans Affairs Department.
Multiple federal officials, all of whom requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the IT passback, confirmed OMB is requiring agencies to spend a percentage of their IT budget on their new digital services office. Sources say each agency’s percentage is different based on their overall IT budget.
“The interesting thing about it that I very much like is it seems the vast majority of money should be spent on hiring people and not on contracting,” said one federal CIO. “The other guidance that came out said senior management needs to approve any spending that isn’t to be used for salaries.”
Agencies must give the White House an implementation plan by the end of February and have been meeting with the E-Government and IT office in January to discuss the requirements.
Sources also confirmed that the digital services group should report to the agency’s deputy secretary.
Several sources said that’s a mild concern as agencies need to be careful how they set up the digital services group. If the CIO is the lead for the group, then reporting to the deputy secretary is fine. But if the group is set up outside the CIO’s control or management, then OMB is bifurcating the oversight of IT projects.
The fact that OMB is mandating a digital services group at every agency isn’t so surprising. In my November interview with Mike Dickerson, the deputy CIO and head of the U.S. Digital Services office in OMB and Lisa Schlosser, the acting federal CIO, it was clear where this effort was heading.
But the fact is OMB is telling agencies to get it done by Oct. 1 and invest a certain amount of money into the effort is huge.
In the November interview, Schlosser said, “We do have a governmentwide strategy that integrates all of these moving parts into one comprehensive strategy. The vision is to have this centralized capability of a digital services team that can come in and help agencies, and to a degree, train agencies on modern Dev/Ops practices and start to embed those through the normal e-government practices in the way the agencies operate from everything to funding to developing to implementing to measuring.”
While the idea seems to have support, some federal CIOs say there are some concerns about the concept.
The CIOs pointed out was where they are going to find the money to hire these people. And some executives questioned whether the government could even attract and find enough people with the right skillsets to hire.
“Think big issue with this, and I do love the idea, is where are we going to find the people I think they want us to hire? We’ve had trouble attracting them to government already,” another federal CIO said. “The idea that we are all going to market at the same time is going to force us to think creatively about whether these people based on D.C. or not. It’s still going to be a challenge.”
The CIO said OMB’s support and how hard they push it to the other non-CIO communities, including the deputy secretaries, is key to making the digital government services group succeed.
An OMB spokesman said they do not comment on the passback.