OMB's IT passback loses its luster, changes its goals

Friday - 1/31/2014, 3:30pm EST

The annual exercise that is the IT passback guidance from the Office of Management and Budget has lost its shine.

Where it used to be a great game of cat and mouse between the White House and reporters — well, at least this reporter — to find out what new IT initiatives or priorities the administration is planning for the coming year, alas it's no more.

Multiple agency IT officials and chief information officers say the governmentwide guidance is just a reminder of what they already are doing, and there's nothing new from a governmentwide guidance perspective. OMB, instead, focused more on agency specific requirements, but again, most were just reminders of goals the agency set for 2014 and beyond.

"It seems lighter this year than it has been in quite some time," said one agency CIO, who requested anonymity in order to speak about the pre-decisional document. "They pushed harder last year, especially knowing agencies were behind on some initiatives, OMB directed us to accelerate some of those initiatives. Even in security areas, it's just high level implementation guidance. There is nothing pointed in terms of new or updated initiatives or giving us deadlines."

Multiple CIOs confirmed the governmentwide guidance reiterated existing priorities around data center consolidation, migrating systems to the cloud, shared services and, of course, implementing continuous diagnostics and mitigation of federal systems and stopping insider threats.

"OMB is trying to move on its IT reform plans. What OMB is trying to do is give gentle reminders that there are things going on,' said another CIO. "For the specific agencies, they are asking for reports or updates on initiatives, such as the status of your data center consolidation effort. It's a yawn. It's not a decisive passback for us."

A third government source added OMB also wants agencies to make sure they fund the e-government and other cross-agency programs by July, and ensure their workforces are properly trained.

Despite the disappointment by CIOs, it seems the lack of new initiatives or policy changes are part of a plan by federal CIO Steve VanRoekel.

An administration official said, "We usually target passback for more technical guidance for the budget. For more substantial policy changes, we use more traditional means of communication, such as policy guidance and memos."

This comment elicited a lot of surprise by former OMB folks.

One former official said the comment was "weird" because passback is part of the governance process and communicates policy decisions made as part of the annual budget process when all major policy decisions are made.

"What a strange and non-statutory view of how government works," the former official said.

Another former OMBer said it shows a void in the "management" side of OMB.

Part of the problem may be the lack of communication from OMB about how it wants to use the passback for now on. CIOs have expected policy and programmatic guidance in passback for the last decade or more. If OMB doesn't address the perception and expectations, CIOs and IT managers will be left wondering where the E-Government and IT office plans on going in the new year. Sources say OMB missed a great opportunity to discuss those expectations at the CIO Council meeting Jan. 22.

The data center consolidation initiative is one of two reports the Government Accountability Office is working. Auditors also are reviewing OMB reporting requirements.

At the most recent CIO Council meeting, OMB told CIOs it plans to develop metrics for common IT services so agencies have a standard view of how money is spent and what kinds of services they are receiving as part of the determination as to whether they should move to a shared service provider.

In other council news, the Justice Department's Kevin Deeley is the new co-chairman of the council's Information Security and Identity Management Committee, taking over for Homeland Security Department CIO Luke McCormack, who became the vice chairman in January.