Industry Execs Point to Next Steps for FITARA Grade Improvements

In the afterglow of last week’s FITARA Scorecard 7.0 report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee–which catalogued both substantial improvements by some Federal agencies in numerous grading categories and efforts by others to shore up a sturdier floor under otherwise fairly poor grades–several Federal IT industry executives took a few minutes with MeriTalk to share their thoughts about how agencies might be able to boost their grades on the next scorecard, scheduled for May 2019.

In offering their thoughts on avenues for further improvement, industry executives offered little in the way of sure bets, but pointed in several consensus directions.

Easy Pickings

Bryan Thomas, vice president-public sector at World Wide Technology, took note of the House committee’s statement that many agency grade improvements were tied to better efforts to implement and regularly update inventories of software licenses, and save money as a result.

“That makes sense, because that is an area in which agencies can take concrete steps and see a measurable return on their efforts,” Thomas said.

But, he added, “Other areas are more complicated and so progress is less predictable. For example, there’s no real comparison between ‘Software Licensing’ and ‘Cybersecurity.’”

Jeff Chabot, director-government segment strategy at Schneider Electric IT Federal, identified CIOs reporting to agency heads as the next low-hanging fruit for agencies that haven’t already done so. “There’s really no good reason why these positions shouldn’t be elevated. This would instantly increase the grade of their score card,” he said.

Steve Harris, senior vice president and general manager at Dell EMC Federal, echoed that sentiment, saying, “It’s essential that all agency CIOs have the authority they need to make the right IT decisions for their missions.”

Where to Next?

While the FITARA scorecard offers Federal agencies clear goals – if not easy paths – to improvement, it also represents a meaningful policy path for both Congress and the Trump administration, both of whom have the ability to lend a hand to help agencies improve.

“For the administration, the scorecard points to broader trends … Are there particular areas in which agencies seem to be struggling—and if so, are there ways in which the administration can provide additional support, whether that means new policies or guidance—or closer oversight,” said WWT’s Thomas, who added, “This applies whether the overall report is upbeat or not.”

“In the same vein, the FITARA scorecard should inform the broader oversight that Congress provides, whether that’s through legislation or appropriations,” he said.

He continued, “The scorecard even offers insight to industry. Again, it comes down to pain-points. Are there areas in which agencies are struggling that industry partners might help? Ultimately, the value of a scorecard hinges on how everyone involved—the agencies, OMB, Congress, and industry—leverage it to improve IT management.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Greg Touhill, who became the first Federal Chief Information Security Officer in 2016 and is now president of Cyxtera Federal Group, said there are enough Federal IT policies now in place to make good progress, and that the focus should be on execution. “I said during my time in federal service that I believe we have plenty of policies and need to execute them better before we look to add additional policies … Focusing on executing the existing policies well is the best next step rather than drafting up something new.”

MGT Tussles Ahead

House Oversight committee members made no secret of their dissatisfaction that many agencies have not taken advantage of the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act to create working capital funds that can be used to finance IT modernization efforts. In particular, they took the Department of Health and Human Services to task when officials from the agency testified they required additional approval – over and above the authority of MGT Act – to transfer money in order to create an IT-focused working capital fund.

WWT’s Thomas said that made MGT a “category to watch” in future scorecards, and said, “Given the administration’s focus on modernization, we can expect Congress to use the scorecard to keep agencies on track.”

Schneider’s Chabot listed MGT-facilitated working capital funds as “a great place to secure funding for modernization projects,” and noted that relatively few agencies have taken advantage. “When it comes to funding, by using MGT, you no longer have to rob Peter to pay Paul,” he said, adding, “The funding would be paid back through optimization and consolidation savings.”

Dell EMC Federal’s Harris said legislation like the MGT Act and the Federal CIO Authorization Act passed by the House last month “are sparking critical conversations and helping clarify goals that allow technology to be a mission enabler. This round of scorecards reflects that this is improving.”

He also said that Federal CIO Suzette Kent “has done a great job of making conversations around emerging technologies like IoT, AI and machine learning a top priority for agencies. Agencies realize that these technologies are truly the key to meeting their mission goals – and that making these emerging technologies a reality means modernizing IT operations. This round of scorecards is just one proof point that we’re moving in the right direction.”

Of the FITARA hearings themselves, Touhill said he wished “the department heads would be sitting next to the CIOs” during FITARA hearings, “as they ultimately own the programs the CIOs administer on their behalf.” He added, “CIOs in many departments have been fighting an uphill battle against organizational inertia as well as conflicting legislative mandates in order to make progress.”

DCOI Timeline

“Data center optimization is another area where there’s clear opportunity for agencies to continue improving, though it’s also important to consider the strides agencies have made that may not be reflected in the scorecard results,” said Harris.

“There are numerous agencies that are making improvements to data center efficiencies, despite not having met specific metrics for data center closures,” he added. “Agencies that are actively pursuing multi-cloud strategies are going to see improvements that help them meet metrics set in the FITARA scorecards, while also getting true mission value and enhancing their abilities to embrace emerging technologies like AI.”

“The agencies who see cloud not as a destination, but as an operating model, and really understand how to leverage their data to provide a service citizens will be the most successful,” he said.

Chabot agreed that Federal agencies can further improve their FITARA grades by working hard over the next two years to hit their optimization and consolidation goals under the Data Center Optimization Initiative. He said OMB is expected to release an updated memo early next year “cleaning up the DCOI metrics on optimization and data center definitions,” and counseled, “look for that memo and adjust your plan for adaptation.”

The Bottom Line

Despite agency failures to make progress in some grading categories, industry executives indicated that the positives in last week’s scorecard show progress that will be both lasting and continuing.

“I expect to see further improvements as the government sheds itself of inefficient organic data centers, retires ancient and unsustainable technology, and empowers CIOs to be more than just the ‘tech people’ and enable them to manage enterprise information as a strategic resource,” said Touhill.

“’The People’ are spending billions of dollars on information technology and need government leaders at all levels to keep ‘their eye on the ball’ to ensure that our government delivers results that are effective, efficient, and secure,” he added.

“The good news with the report card is that the criteria for getting good grades is well spelled out,” Touhill said. “In the Air Force we’d say, ‘The flight plan is charted, so fly the plan.’ Departments and agencies that want to achieve a score of ‘A’ need to ensure that management from the top-on-down pay attention to the criteria, align the right resources to achieve the desired result, and execute well.

“We expect to see the trends of [scorecard] stabilization and improvement to continue,” said Harris, who pointed to emerging technology applications as a key driver for continued progress.

“Right now, there are exciting possibilities emerging for agencies around AI and machine learning,” he said. “Agencies can use the vast amounts of data they’ve been collecting over the past few years to drive mission outcomes thanks to these innovative approaches. Recognizing this, the IT modernization required by AI and machine learning will remain priorities, leading to continued improvements in many of the areas the FITARA scorecards measure.”

“Overall, we do see slow and steady improvement in how agencies manage IT,” said WWT’s Thomas. “Beyond their progress in any given category, we see agencies developing greater management discipline. In the long run, that will pay off,” he said.

Rob Davies, executive vice president of operations at ViON Corp., said federal agencies can continue moving forward with modernization efforts “by deploying an as-a-Service model, starting with their biggest priorities and then adding application and infrastructure. This gives agencies the flexibility to enhance mission support and stay relevant well into the future.”

He added that the private sector “is tasked with meeting Federal agencies where they are, helping them to prioritize legacy systems and look at how modernization and performance challenges can be solved by multi-cloud environments.”

Other IT executives pounded home the point that modernization is its own virtue, both for improving operations and for doing better on the FITARA scorecard.

One executive who spoke to MeriTalk on background said the road toward improved FITARA scores, at least in the near term, can be paved with more CIOs reporting in to agency heads, and closing the gap on cross-agency cybersecurity (CAP) goals, which form part of the Scorecard grading for FISMA (Federal Information Security Modernization Act) compliance. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee previewed that grade in its Scorecard 7.0, but did not count it toward agencies’ overall FITARA grade.

The executive also said agencies should look for “quick wins on modernization” as a means to bump up their FITARA grades.

“There are a few key technologies that enable the way forward: Cloud is, and always has been a cybersecurity and modernization focused activity,” the executive said, adding, “Using products such as API gateways can also modernize infrastructure through the use of micro-services and serve as a transitional technology.”

Looking to the future, the executive recommended that both Federal agencies and private sector partners review the scores “and take them into account in every project. They are both remediation and future state opportunities.”

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