IT reform bill would cull the CIO herd, give them more power

Tuesday - 12/4/2012, 3:22pm EST

Jared Serbu, Federal News Radio reporter

Download mp3

By one count, there are 243 people across the government with a title of chief information officer on their business cards.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said it seems to be a case of too many chefs spoiling the IT soup.

Issa, the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the proliferation of CIOs throughout government is one culprit behind failed federal IT projects. To make the system work, he said, each agency needs a single CIO with more authority and more gravitas.

He said all those chiefs is a basic contravention of the ideas behind the Clinger-Cohen Act, which created CIOs in the first place in 1996.

"If you authorize CIOs, then by definition the term should mean something. If you have hundreds of them for 24 major agencies, then you really don't have chiefs," Issa told a Monday IT reform forum hosted by NextGov in Washington. "That's the most important thing this bill is intended to do. The chief should be the chief. There's plenty of Indians, but there has to be one responsible individual who then holds their staff at all levels responsible regardless of their titles or pay grades. We don't have that in the federal government."

Who's in charge of the IT budget?

Issa's proposal to consolidate the authority of CIOs is one element of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act he began circulating in draft form in September. The bill's proposed reforms encompass much of the universe of federal IT and aim to upright an acquisition system that observers almost universally agree is ill-suited for the fast-changing world of information technology.

But from his perspective as an overseer of agency decisions, Issa said one of the most important parts of the bill is the notion that one single person would have authority over an agency's IT budget.

"You want to know that somebody's in charge, but when you make them accountable you also want to give them the real ability to kill a program, enhance a program, move funds around, and candidly come to Congress or OMB with the kind of gravitas that can say, 'look, this is my $2 billion and I'm telling you we need to move it from here to there,'" he said. "It doesn't have to be the most technologically savvy individual, it has to be the best manager. It has to be somebody who understands whether a program is in trouble or it has a real opportunity to succeed."

There is one agency in government whose CIO has full authority over technology spending throughout the enterprise: the Department of Veterans Affairs gained that unique power following a data breach that compromised personal information on millions of veterans. Issa said Congress missed the boat by not extending that authority to the rest of government. Doing so now, he said, won't diminish Congress's power of the purse, but it will let agencies make the adaptations they need to within a quickly changing technology landscape.

"Reprogramming authority will probably continue to be within Congress, but the idea that you should have one source that looks at the system and comes in and says we can spend money better over here, that's what we intend to do," he said.

"I don't think it's going to be a situation where Congress gives you a big pot of money, you go spend it and call us in the morning. I don't think government is going that way, we are different. But the idea that you constantly come back to reprogram budget money and you have flexibility is a goal. So is the accountability of having less people coming to appropriations committees or even OMB. Imagine the Office of Management and Budget trying to deal with 243 different people who have the term chief. It would be hopeless."

A growing knowledge gap

Issa spoke alongside Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), another collaborator on the draft reform bill. Connolly said government also needs to focus on developing a highly capable cadre of IT acquirers within agencies.

"We have to address personnel. One of the problems Darrell's identified in terms of federal management of IT is that there's a growing gap between the domain expertise in the public sector and the private sector," he said. "It is not uncommon for the federal contractor providing the services to have all of the expertise on their side of the table. When I was in the private sector, I can think of one contract we had where over three years, we had 14 different government program managers. There was no continuity, and every one of them had his or her own ideas about what the contract really meant. It meant that over time the contract got morphed into something else, and satisfaction on both sides was highly unlikely."