Top federal IT stories of 2013 provide few surprises

Friday - 12/20/2013, 5:59pm EST

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.

This story is a part of Jason Miller's Inside the Reporter's Notebook feature. Read more from this week's edition.