Federal IT Management Comes Up Short

Think about what has happened in information technology in the last 15 years. The inventors of Google began their collaboration in 1996 but did not adopt the brand name until 1997. The BlackBerry mobile device came on the market in 1999. And the Clinger-Cohen Act (CCA) was enacted by Congress in 1996 for the purpose of improving the way the federal government manages information technology.

Now, 15 years after Clinger-Cohen, a host of IT innovations — such as Twitter, Facebook, tablets and other mobile media — dominate the technology landscape. Yet federal agencies are still struggling to meet the objectives of the 1996 legislation, especially in the area of IT procurement. The General Accountability Office (GAO), as part of its periodic assessment of the results of Clinger-Cohen, has concluded that federal agencies still have a long way to go to be fully compliant with the law (originally known as the Information Technology Management Reform Act).

GAO conducted the study by asking 30 federal chief information officers (CIOs) to respond to questionnaires. The agency then conducted follow-up interviews with some current CIOs as well as a panel of former federal IT managers. The report covered several critical CIO functions, including the “selection, control and evaluation of IT investments” and “a primary role in developing and enforcing policies for systems acquisition, development and integration.”

Lawmakers Disappointed

In the muted style characteristic of government reports, GAO nonetheless reflected significant continuing concerns about the ability of agency CIOs to effectively manage federal IT resources. GAO noted that it had addressed such issues in several reports in the past but that even some recently released IT directives from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) fell short of the mark.

The OMB guidance “does not address the implementation weaknesses we have identified in this and our prior reviews,” according to GAO, “specifically that CIOs face significant limitations in their ability to influence IT investment decision making at their agencies and to exercise their statutory authority” as granted in the CCA.

Two key lawmakers were not as gentle in their reaction to the GAO report.

“Federal CIOs are critical to ensuring the government is managing its information technology resources effectively,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn.

“Particularly troubling is that GAO found many federal CIOs have not been fully empowered to be successful. For example, despite the broad legal authority given to CIOs, many have limited budget authority of IT investments at their agencies,” he said.

“It has been 15 years since the passage of the Clinger-Cohen Act that established the statutory federal CIO role, yet organizational inertia and a lack of control over the budget and workforce remain obstacles to compliance with the law, and more generally, sound IT oversight and program management,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me.

“We cannot continue to have schedule slips, poor mission-related results, and millions of dollars in cost overruns. The effectiveness of a CIO can make a significant difference on decisions regarding IT investments and issues. I am concerned that the vision of the Clinger-Cohen reforms has, in some cases, been subverted by bureaucratic maneuvering and turf battles,” Collins said.

IT Procurement Lacks CIO Input

In the critical area of IT procurement, GAO found that although CIOs were “assigned by law” with the authority to be accountable for IT management, many CIOs faced limitations in their ability to influence IT investment decision making. Only nine CIOs responded that their approval was required for the inclusion of all IT investments in their agency’s budget. The remaining 21 CIOs indicated that their explicit approval either was not required, or it was required only for major IT investments.

Ten of those 21 CIOs indicated they would be more effective if their explicit approval for IT investment decisions was sought by their agency head. Having full authority would reduce the number of unknown or “rogue” systems — that is, systems not vetted by the CIO office — CIOs said. GAO also reported that 13 of the CIOs in the study did not have the power to cancel funding for IT investments.

In many cases, significant IT spending at federal agencies occurs below the CIO level at individual units within a department or agency — referred to as “component level” control — on such commodity IT systems as email, data centers, Web infrastructure and mission-specific systems.

“Multiple CIOs faced limitations in their ability to influence agency decisions on integrating commodity IT systems throughout their agencies because they did not have control over funding for these systems at the component level,” GAO said.

CIOs in general did not see the need for additional legislation regarding how they function, the report noted, but felt that the existing provisions of the Clinger Cohen Act needed to be observed.

“What’s needed to improve the situation is that these people clearly need to be given the IT management authority by those who control these agencies and departments. And then the CIOs need to be held accountable with metrics and performance standards that make sense,” Steve O’Keeffe, founder of MeriTalk, an online network community for federal agencies, told CRM Buyer.

“I think the government can learn a lot from the private sector on measuring IT performance so I would open up channels to get a business perspective,” he said.

“The causes for why perpetual gaps continue to exist in how federal agencies plan, implement and operate information technology are centered around below-par governance, inconsistent application of leading practices, complex personnel management processes, and imbalances between authority and personal accountability,” Tim Young, senior manager at Deloitte Consulting, told CRM Buyer. Young formerly served as deputy administrator for e-government and IT at OMB.

CIOs Just Need Respect

The Clinger Cohen Act clearly granted significant stature to the CIO position — but at many federal agencies, that provision has been ignored, the GAO report noted.

Still, CIOs can enhance their standing through their own efforts, Young observed. “CIOs who effectively balance exerting their statutory authority while remaining collaborative solution providers to the agency’s programs historically yield a great success rate in execution.”

On the IT investment issue, most departmental CIOs influence, but do not control, all IT funding, Young noted, and “the federal budget process largely reinforces this dilemma.” As a result, “CIOs are increasingly forced to establish collaborative and transparent governance as a means of providing clarity and accountability to outcomes.”

Last August, OMB issued a directive designed to enhance CIO authority and resultant accountability. But there is a need for a push from outside the bureaucracy, suggested O’Keeffe.

“Congress needs to “bang some heads” together and implement the laws that are on the books, he noted in a recent blog.

Sen. Lieberman had a similar idea.

“Senator Collins and I will continue our oversight effort to ensure CIOs are charged with the responsibilities they need to perform their jobs successfully,” he said.

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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