Federal CIOs embrace IT reform, but struggle to move forward

Federal CIOs embrace IT reform, but struggle to move forward

Survey finds support for the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, but an alarming number of CIOs are not prepared to act..

When lawmakers passed the most sweeping government IT reform legislation in nearly two decades, federal agency CIOs won significant new budgeting authorities that, along with other provisions, aim to improve efficiencies and reduce waste in the $80 billion federal technology apparatus.

[ Related: Federal CIOs Need More Authority to Better Manage IT ]

But as one of the key deadlines in the statute approaches, how well prepared are government CIOs to implement the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA?

Agencies have until Saturday to submit a self-assessment of their progress on implementing the mandates of the law, and 84 percent of federal IT managers expect that FITARA will improve efficiencies, according to a new survey from the IT consortium MeriTalk.

However, just 22 percent of the federal workers polled say that they have conducted a formal evaluation to determine whether they have the resources to implement the provisions of the law, and only 18 percent say that they expect to meet the August 15 deadline.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents say that they are not even familiar with the guidance on implementing FITARA that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued in June.

"Seems that federal IT execs get the concept -- but they're short on understanding of the details," MeriTalk founder Steve O'Keeffe writes in an email. "Seems right now a lot of folks support Donald Trump's bid for the presidency -- but how many of those folks really understand his policies?"

CIOs support FITARA, but OMB needs to actively guide for success

FITARA, signed into law December 2014, is intended to transform the role of the CIO in large agencies, conferring new authorities on that role to purchase and manage IT centrally, thereby addressing the common problem of diffuse and overlapping applications deployed across the organization. The bill also aims to strengthen ties between agency and bureau-level CIOs, enhance CIO accountability, and improve visibility into the IT operations throughout the agency.

[Related: How CIOs can reduce shadow IT in government ]

MeriTalk's survey indicated strong support for FITARA among federal IT executives, with 93 percent of respondents saying that they expect the law to be as effective or more so than the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which established the role of the federal CIO.

But O'Keeffe worries that for all the good intentions behind FITARA, the law could fail to live up to its promise if CIOs and other agency leaders don't have the resources to put in place the changes outlined in the bill, particularly as they're juggling numerous other IT initiatives (cloud, open data, mobile, etc.) that the administration has identified as priorities.

"Federal agency IT execs are neck deep in compliance requirements and mandates," O'Keeffe says. "The history of federal IT is littered with empty, unfunded mandates that failed to deliver value."

A common refrain heard in federal IT circles is the admonishment against trying to "boil the ocean." That amounts to an appeal to take large, sweeping calls for reform like FITARA and break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces, and act on them iteratively.

In a statement, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), one of the authors of FITARA, praises the administration's "efforts to kick-start implementation," but says the low levels of awareness among agency executives about OMB's guidance are a cause for concern.

"I intend to make sure Congress diligently monitors implementation of FITARA by applying lessons learned from Clinger-Cohen," Connolly says. "We will not accept unnecessary delays, improper half-measures, or the stubborn preservation of the status quo."

O'Keeffe suggests that the administration approach FITARA as a government-wide priority, urging OMB to more actively engage with agencies to help steer implementation. OMB's guidance and deadlines might be a fine start, but O'Keeffe calls for a more hands-on approach that would see the administration develop a method for tracking agencies' progress -- step by step -- and calling attention to early successes.

"If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority," he says. "For FITARA to get traction, OMB needs to clearly communicate the how and why. OMB needs to continue to double down on outreach and education. We need carrots and sticks -- and to establish a scorecard. We need to promote agencies that do a good job -- and significantly to showcase how those agencies have delivered value to their mission owners."

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