Is FITARA Failing? Federal CIOs Still Say They Don’t Have Authority Over IT Acquisitions

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More than two years after Congress passed the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act—the biggest overhaul of Federal IT acquisition in decades—most Federal chief information officers say they still don’t have the authority necessary to manage technology throughout their agencies.

“In the latest FITARA self-assessments, more than half of the 24 CIOs reported that they do not have complete authority over IT acquisitions,” said Dave Powner, director of IT Issues at the Government Accountability Office, in testimony Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “These include large departments like DHS, Energy, HHS, Transportation, and VA. Only about one-third of the CIOs told us during our ongoing work with this committee that they have the authority to stop any project that is not going well.”

Passed in December 2015, one of the main provisions of FITARA involved enhancements to the authority agency CIOs have over major IT investment planning and budgeting. But for various reasons, Federal CIOs have either been unable or reluctant to exercise their new authorities granted under FITARA. Last year, the GAO reported incidents of CIOs being forced to sign off on FITARA plans they didn’t agree with.

Many of the other witnesses at the hearing agreed that one of the main problems with IT acquisition and modernization stems from leadership and support for modernization initiatives.

“One of the things that’s in my testimony […] is that it’s not a technology issue. It is a governance issue and a leadership issue,” Venkatapathi “PV” Puvvada, president of Unisys Federal Systems, told MeriTalk.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., one of the co-authors of FITARA, told MeriTalk in an email that he is disappointed that CIOs are still not receiving final authority over IT projects. “In response to concerns from federal CIOs, we included a metric in the last winter’s scorecard to determine the development of CIO authorities at the CFO Act agencies. We plan on expanding the metrics in the next FITARA scorecard to improve reporting on this and understand the barriers to granting CIOs this authority,” Connolly said. “CIO accountability is a common sense solution to the issues raised at our Federal IT acquisition reform hearing yesterday and it is frustrating to learn that agency heads are still impeding this.”

To date, there has been only one concrete example of a Federal CIO flexing his newfound FITARA muscles to force better financial planning by component-level CIOs. In December 2015, Transportation Department CIO Richard McKinney froze all IT purchases across the agency until component agency CIOs delivered a strategic spending plan.

“It is disappointing that two years after enactment many agency CIOs don’t have the authority to do what needs to be done, particularly on failing IT projects,” said Mike Hettinger, managing principal at Hettinger Strategy Group. “Through my discussions with agency CIOs on FITARA one thing is clear, it is being implemented inconsistently across government. Inconsistent implementation and agencies doing their own thing affected the success of Clinger-Cohen, and I am concerned that we are heading down the same path with FITARA.”

Powner also testified that incremental modernization approach certifications, required by FITARA, have stagnated over the past few years.

“Our ongoing work for this committee shows that about 60 percent of the IT projects are taking an incremental approach, but this percentage is not improving since previous years. FITARA requires that CIOs certify adequate use of incremental development, but our work shows that only three of the 24 agencies have a policy to do so,” Powner said. “This gets back to some of the things that FITARA is trying to do. If these agencies would go smaller and more incremental bites we would deliver a lot better.”

The hearing also highlighted Powner’s statements at MeriTalk’s Data Center Brainstorm last week that the deadline for data center consolidation efforts should extend past 2018.

“I think we can clearly extend that at least several years on data centers,” Powner said. “The reason I say that is that if you look at optimization metrics–you want to save money, you want to optimize centers–only about a third of the 24 agencies will meet four to five of the key optimization metrics. The other ones are self-reported and are nowhere near that in 2018.”

According to Powner, many of the solutions to IT acquisition’s biggest issues are grounded in FITARA.

“Failed acquisitions are well documented over the years, and the reasons are clear,” Powner said. “Unclear accountability, big-bang waterfall approaches, OMB not playing a critical role, agencies with insufficient oversight, and an inability to effectively leverage industry.”

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