Issa's IT reform bill moves through committee, concerns still remain

Thursday - 3/21/2013, 5:28am EDT

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

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Mike Hettinger, vice president for pubic sector innovation, Software and Information Industry Association

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The first major rewrite of the laws that govern how federal agencies oversee and manage information technology is one step closer to becoming law.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday easily passed the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) with little debate and no amendments.

It was one of 12 bills the committee approved along with the Federal Information Security Management Amendments Act (FISMAA) and the Excess Federal Buildings and Property Disposal Act.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the co-author of the IT reform bill and chairman of the committee, said by implementing the provisions in the legislation, agencies could take the roughly $80 billion spent on IT annually and save 10 times that much by reducing poor decision-making and becoming more efficient in how departments deliver services.

The 61-page bill addresses several long-standing issues from how best to improve program and project management, to IT acquisition workforce certifications, and giving more authorities to agency chief information officers.

Issa, who released the draft bill in September and held two hearings over the last six months, concluded in the final version of the bill, each agency should have only one person with the title CIO.

"By centralizing some of the major aspects such as how many CIOs actually are there and do they have budget authority, what we can begin to do is have the term CIO be uniquely somebody who has budget authority, get the number down to a number that can have not a conference, but a conference call and they can begin coordinating purchasing," said Issa in an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio in his Capitol Hill office. "One of the key provisions is the idea that we are one buyer. As one buyer, the federal government should be able to look across all of its purchasing and leverage a purchase by perhaps [from] a small company that would suit others and buy it at the same price."

Good for small businesses

Issa is referring to the idea of strategic sourcing. The bill would require the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to issue regulations that tell agencies to use the contracts under the Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative or justify why they decided not to with a cost and benefit analysis.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.)

While major concerns remain about strategic sourcing, particularly in the small business community, Issa said the bill actually is one of the most small-business friendly ones in a long time.

"If you are a small business entity and you get a contract with a particular entity and you develop [software], whether from open source or from proprietary software or even a commercial product, [that] is delivered to them, it then, under this bill, becomes a single purchase consideration and you can call on other entities or, in fact, encourage a leveraging between entities," Issa said. "So a small company with a small contract can find themselves selling almost overnight to a dozen different entities."

He added many small firms struggle in the federal market because the bid process is too complex.

"If you have to go through the whole bid and award process each time as a small entity, you may find it prohibitive," Issa said. "If you go through it once and now your software has a price and availability that can be purchased by other entities as part of this single government purchasing strategy, you can get small orders from dozens of different places in government, including leveraging to cities and states."

Cadres of IT acquisition experts

Another key section of the bill that is directly related to giving CIOs more budget authority is the attempt to address program and project management.

For more than a decade, the Office of Management and Budget, under both the Bush and Obama White Houses, has tried to improve agency capabilities. OMB has required certifications, training, moving to agile development and the assignment of qualified people to manage programs. But agencies continue to struggle to keep IT projects on track.

Issa's legislation would require OMB and the Office of Personnel Management to create a strategy that includes the creation of a specialized career path and a career advancement model that takes into account public and private sector experience.

"Probably the most important thing in this bill is recognizing there are too many people who get the title program manager, who report to a CIO who has no budget authority, which means they have no ability to either add money or kill a program," Issa said. "What we want to do is we want to have real budget authority, less people so you have points of accountability. We believe, in many cases, that would have caused programs that were going awry to be reconsidered, perhaps killed, or at least rerouted by someone who had budget authority."

Issa said agencies have made some progress in improving program and project management, but it hasn't been as widespread as it needs to be.

That is why the bill would create assisted acquisition centers of excellence, which would promote, develop and use IT acquisition best practices.

Issa said the centers of excellence would ensure agencies are not buying over and over again the same technology or services at different prices, terms and conditions.

Reaction to reforms mixed

The administration's support for the bill has been tepid. There is some agreement that federal IT laws, which haven't been updated since 2002 when Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the E-Government Act into law, need attention. But federal CIO Steven VanRoekel testified in January before Issa's committee that the current set of statutes give the agencies enough flexibility to be successful.

At a second hearing, Richard Spires, the Homeland Security Department CIO and vice chairman of the CIO Council, said program and project management is one of the main areas where agencies need help, and a center of excellence is one good approach.

Issa has received a better reaction from industry. He received dozens of comments from the private sector and made changes.

Mike Hettinger, the vice president for the public sector innovation group at the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), said his members believe there are plenty of positive things in the bill but they still have some concerns.

He said, specifically, the expanded authorities for CIOs and the data center optimization provisions are among the most positive aspects of the bill.

Open source language concerning

Hettinger said the language around open source is probably the biggest concern for vendors.

Mike Hettinger, vice president, public sector innovation, Software and Information Industry Association

"The main issue with the original language, and some of this was corrected in the language in the revised version of the bill, was the preference for open source," he said. "Even open source folks don't want a preference for open source because then you could say we want a preference for proprietary software. We want to make sure the playing field from an open source standpoint is level. I think the language in the revised bill goes a long way in doing that. There are still some questions about the guidance that is supposed to be developed around the use of open source and that is where our concerns lie right now."

The bill calls on OMB to issue guidance that focuses on open source in several ways, including clarifying the preference for commercial items, including those developed using open source software; ensuring market research includes open source products; and establishing standard service level agreements for the maintenance and support of widely-adopted software.

SIIA wrote a letter to the committee expressing its concerns about the bill.

TechAmerica also wrote a letter to the committee detailing areas of the bill that need to be addressed.

"A number of provisions appear to be redundant and duplicative because they restate authorities or responsibilities that are already provided elsewhere in statute," TechAmerica wrote. "Finally, several significant portions of the proposal are entirely new text and have never before been seen and warrant significant additional review and discussion."

More input expected

Issa said just because the committee passed the bill, it doesn't mean industry and the administration will not have time to offer more comments and changes.

"Each of the changes has been more a matter of defining so that individuals could really understand what the bill is doing and what it's not doing," he said. "There are some areas of concern that I have to be candid about. Open source software, which is in existing law, which many of our best vendors have built on open source, continues to be an area in which people are concerned that essentially the government will not pay again for that which it already bought or that which is in the public domain. To a certain extent, that's true. We don't want to be buying twice for essentially what is available to the public or what we've already purchased and is available in government. It's a major reform and it's one of the areas where there is some push back because we hope it creates some real savings."

He added that building on open source when possible opens the door to more vendors who innovate and offer new technologies.

Issa said he's hopeful that the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will be supportive and work with the committee on the bill.

"What we see is a big education process," he said. "Most people look at IT as we all buy it, etc., but when you start looking at $81 billion and multiple contracts of $1 billion or more that have had to be scrapped, we have to educate the public that this can be prevented."

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