Inside the Reporter's Notebook - December 20, 2013

Friday - 12/20/2013, 5:57pm EST

"Inside the Reporter's Notebook," is a biweekly dispatch of news and information you may have missed or that slipped through the cracks at conferences, hearings and the like.

This is neither a column nor commentary - it's news tidbits, strongly sourced buzz and other items of interest that have happened or are happening in the federal IT and acquisition communities.

As always, I encourage you to submit ideas, suggestions, and, of course, news to me at jpmiller@federalnewsradio.com.

Top federal IT stories of 2013 provide few surprises

It always amazes me when I'm researching a story and find one that I wrote over the summer or the spring and have no recollection of ever having done that piece. It reminds me of how fast things move in the federal community and that I'm getting old.

Without a doubt, 2013 ranks as high on the list of interesting and newsworthy years among the last 16 I've covered in the federal community. We saw a government shutdown, a major administration program fall on its face and a host of smaller, but just as important developments from mobile to big data to the first attempt at IT and acquisition reform in a decade that will continue the government's evolution.

I asked more than a dozen current and former federal officials for their top choices of IT and acquisition stories for 2013. The following is a list compiled based on all their answers.

  1. HealthCare.gov - Without a doubt the management and technology failings of the Affordable Care Act portal received the most comments and votes from my panel of experts. Not surprising, given the fact it was the Obama administration's main legislative accomplishment over the last five years and how much attention it received across the country.

    At the same time, many agency chief information officers, IT and acquisition experts say it also spurred better, more substantive discussions around IT and procurement reform. One agency official said HealthCare.gov demonstrated the importance of "getting IT right" as a major success factor for policy initiatives, and reinforcing what happens when you take technology implementation for granted. Just this week President Barack Obama met with private sector CEOs to discuss the challenges around IT and procurement. The White House's statement on the meeting: "The President made clear his continued focus on improving the way we deliver technology to maximize innovation, efficiency and customer service, and encouraged the CEOs to continue to share their ideas on how to do so."

    Pay attention here, this is a precursor to the steps the administration and Congress plan to take in the coming months, especially now that the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) didn't make it in the final version of the Defense authorization bill, passed by the Senate Thursday. Several sources say the most recent CIO Council meeting featured a long discussion on where the administration needs to go with IT and procurement reform.

  2. Leaks by Edward Snowden - Easily the second most mentioned story of 2013. And my experts say this is broader than just information leaks, but encompasses the entire debate over the National Security Agency's use of technology and the renewed focus on stopping or limiting the damage from insider threats.

    One executive said the government is actively fortifying its insider threat protections as a result of Snowden- related leaks. The President received recommendations earlier this week from a committee of experts detailing 46 recommendations to improve the privacy and civil liberties of signal intelligence collection. These changes also will impact the federal contractor community, especially in the wake of the shootings and tragedy at the Navy Yard.

    The idea of contractor support and security clearances have come under more scrutiny and will continue into 2014, many experts say. In fact, the Defense Department announced earlier this week at the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on protecting federal facilities that it's testing a new continuous monitoring approach to security clearances.

    Stephen Lewis, the DoD's deputy director for Personnel, Industrial and Physical Security Policy in the Directorate of Security Policy and Oversight in the Office of Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, told committee members that the Pentagon established a "pilot on continuous evaluation, which is going to look at — do queries, automated queries of public and DOD records, to look for issues of concern."

    Additionally, several experts have said contractors are suffering from the Snowden-effect worldwide as foreign countries are hesitant to do business with them because of the NSA's intrusions and capabilities. One former federal executive said, "The combination of anti-contractor rhetoric generated by the actions of these individuals and a widely acknowledged need to review the entire security clearance process, has led to a series of studies and analyses that could either lead to smart, thoughtful change or could adversely affect how companies are allowed support the government in the future. In either case the government's ability to respond to national security threats could be hampered by an inability to access key skills in a timely manner."

  3. Shutdown and ongoing budget debate - The impact on IT and acquisition was clear from the beginning. Agencies had to delay major projects and contracts. For example, the General Services Administration delayed solicitation responses to the huge OASIS multiple award contract for professional services. The Defense Intelligence Agency pushed back the $6 billion E-SITE contract industry day, which delayed the release of the request for proposals. Even the IRS had to delay tax season, in part, so it could update systems with new requirements from Congress. And a recent survey from Market Connections, Inc. and Lohfeld Consulting Group, Inc. found 31 percent of vendors say they saw their revenue decline by more than 10 percent in 2013 because of sequestration and the shutdown, while 30 percent said their revenue decrease by less than 10 percent.

    Associated with the budget crunch is the government's move to lowest-price, technically acceptable procurements, which also is wreaking havoc on the vendor community. Additionally, the IT passback from the Office of Management Budget, which usually comes right around Thanksgiving, is delayed until after Jan. 1, according to multiple government sources. This cuts down the time agencies have to prepare to implement the new IT and acquisition policies. With Congress passing a topline budget for the next two years, makes planning a little easier, some of the federal executives say they are hopeful for some stability in their budget situations. A New Year's resolution from Congress, maybe?

  4. Mobility - Several CIOs and executives mentioned the progress agencies made in not only moving away from the traditional BlackBerry devices, but implementing the Digital Government Strategy, using Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and taking advantage of virtualization to improve how citizens consume services through smartphones and tablet computers.

  5. Lack of progress on cybersecurity from Congress - This is a story that actually started in 2012, but the situation got no better this year. One CIO said lawmakers' inability to find common ground led to the White House's cyber executive order. It was one of the few positive outcomes because of the lack of action by the Hill. At the same time, the administration worked most of the year to get agencies set up to implement continuous diagnostics and mitigation (CDM) as part of its move to dynamic and away from static cybersecurity. That will make 2014 a big year for cyber improvements. One CIO said agencies "need better ways to stay ahead of the bad guys and more training in because we are losing the battle." The most obvious examples of those battle wounds are the attacks and cyber problem at the Energy and Veterans Affairs departments that came to light this year.

  6. Changing roles of CIOs - This could easily be tied to the HealthCare.gov and FITARA conversation. But a couple of executives made interesting points around the move by OMB to give CIOs oversight over commodity IT and the increased need for collaboration to around issues such as open government, PortfolioStat 2.0 and the second term management agenda. In fact, OMB earlier this year created a new CXO Collaboration Team to help break down any artificial barriers. Add to that the mandate to seriously consider shared services, especially around financial management, and the move to the cloud, CIOs' role will continue to evolve. As an aside to the changing role of the CIO, the poor reaction by the White House to the HealthCare.gov debacle and not providing political cover for the Health and Human Services and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services CIOs and, what one source called the "defenestration" of former DHS CIO Richard Spires, didn't sit well with many senior technology managers.

GSA's cloud computing sales trends

A funny thing happened to me at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit sponsored by MobileGovt earlier this week after I commented about my disdain for Major League baseball in the wake of the 1994 strike — I know it's been almost 20 years and I should get over it. San Francisco Giants CIO Bill Schlough decided to try and "convince" me to come back to baseball.

During his fascinating speech about how the Giants are using big data in the cloud to analyze players, determine strategy and make the fan experience better, he decided to poke a little fun at me by calling me out to the audience a couple of times for my disparaging comments about baseball. At the end of his speech, Schlough called me on stage and took one last crack at getting me to change my mind. He presented me with a San Francisco Giants 2012 replica World Series ring. Did it work? I'll withhold comment; I've learned my lesson, so to speak.

San Francisco Giants CIO Bill Schlough presented this replica championship ring to Executive Editor Jason Miller, during a speech at the Federal Cloud Computing Summit. (Photo by Michael O'Connell/Federal News Radio)

Speaking of the cloud summit, GSA's Mark Day, the acting deputy assistant commissioner in the Integrated Technology Services office of the Federal Acquisition Service, said agencies spent more than $550 million on cloud services through governmentwide acquisition contracts, while they spent less than $100 million on cloud-specific contracts, such as email-as-a-service or infrastructure- as-a-service. Day said the difference in the spend shows integration services are important to agencies.

It's also one of the reasons GSA continues to test the cloud broker concept with DHS and HHS. Day said GSA is looking at the cloud broker model along the lines of vendors who integrate, vendors who customize and vendors who aggregate.

"There's a cloud broker who can help do security, single sign-on tie-ins for all cloud providers. You could have a cloud broker do security monitoring in a standardized way across all cloud providers, giving you a single pane of glass to manage from. You could integrate legacy and cloud so it's easier to manage your pieces," Day said. "There's a whole set of layers as you start to think this through that a cloud broker could do. Now the question is, which of those functions can a cloud broker do economically and efficiently for the federal government? Where do they add value? Where do they drive speed to market? Where do they make it easier for the consumer to know what they've actually gotten and be able to anticipate problems and react to problems better? And where frankly, are they just an added cost?"

Day added GSA is digging into and testing those questions to understand the value proposition for the government. GSA is about six weeks away from the pilot ending, and then they will analyze to see what worked well and what didn't.

CIO shuffle continues at SBA, DHS, OPM

The Small Business Administration has a new CIO. Renee Macklin is taking over from Chase Garwood.

Macklin joins SBA from the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration. Garwood had been acting CIO since March and deputy CIO at SBA since August 2012.

Garwood is heading back to DHS, where he spent the first 11 years of his post-Army career, to work in the Science and Technology Directorate's resiliency office. Garwood previously served as the chief technology officer of DHS' U.S. Visit program and CIO of the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD).

In an email to staff obtained by Federal News Radio, Garwood said he hopes to provide DHS with some good practical and operational experience, and help the continued movement of research and development, and applied technology into the hands of DHS operational missions.

"SBA has an important mission, but supporting homeland security and first responders is just too much in my DNA and what gets me excited to go to work and serve," he wrote.

Macklin spent the last 12 years at ITA after serving as a programmer for the CIA and working for large telecommunications firms.

The shuffle of Garwood and Macklin, as well as the Office of Personnel Management's announcement that Donna Seymour, former deputy chief human capital officer for the Defense Department, is the new CIO, is likely the first of several CIO changes coming in the new year so be on the lookout for others to move around.

Improper payments rate drops for 4th straight year

This just in late on Friday from OMB, the improper payment rate dropped to 3.54 percent in 2013 from 3.74 percent in 2012.

A new blog post by OMB Deputy Director for Management Beth Cobert said the rate in 2009 when President Obama came into office was 5.42 percent, meaning the rate dropped almost 2 percent in five years.

"Over the past year, we reduced improper payment rates in major programs across the government, including Medicaid, Medicare Advantage (Part C), Unemployment Insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP - Food Stamps), Pell Grants, and two Social Security programs — Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance," Cobert wrote. "Furthermore, agencies recovered more than $22 billion in overpayments through payment recapture audits and other methods in FY 2013."

Agencies have been using data analytics and innovative approaches such as recovery auditing, to reduce improper payments.

Cobert said OMB is expanding the use of innovative approaches.

"OMB has also begun conducting a comprehensive analysis of agency-specific corrective actions to identify programs with the highest return-on-investment or potential for substantially reducing improper payments," she said. "This analysis will help shape guidance on improper payments to be released in the months ahead."

RELATED STORIES:

Dec. 9--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: Labor pinched by poor cloud contracting; Financial shared services progresses

Nov. 15----Inside the Reporter's Notebook: 3 takeaways from HealthCare.gov IT hearing; First task order for continuous monitoring is out

Nov. 4--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: DATA Act substitute minus accountability provisions; OFPP testing prices paid portal

Oct. 18--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: Acquisition, IT trends; Is cybersecurity awareness month still necessary?

Oct. 4--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: OMB adds clarity to new cyber policy; Cyber risks during shutdown overstated; OASIS delayed indefinitely

Sept. 13--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: FEMA to name Gardner as CIO; new DHS CIO close; NASA struggles with HSPD-12

Aug. 16--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: A new job for a former VA senior official; Countdown to cloud credential pilot begins

Aug. 2--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: Shining a light on GSA contract awards; Congress continues battle over E-Gov Fund

July 12--Inside the Reporter's Notebook: DHS cyber contract awards delayed; musical chairs in federal IT ranks