Nov 03 2015

A Future with FITARA

Seen as the most significant Federal IT legislation in 20 years, FITARA will empower CIOs like never before.

Richard McKinney can visualize what congressional hearings on technology will be like once FITARA is fully implemented.

“The Hill wants to be able to look one CIO in the eye and say, ‘Did you know about that spend? Did you know about that project?’ ” says McKinney, CIO of the Transportation Department, and one of two CIOs on the Office of Management and Budget’s FITARA executive working group. “They don’t want the CIO to say, ‘No, that was buried down in the agency. I didn’t have anything to do with that.’ ”

The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), seen as the most important piece of federal IT legislation since the Clinger–Cohen Act of 1996, will empower CIOs to take more control of their department’s technology.

While many department CIOs in the past focused on broader technology policy, FITARA, passed as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, gives CIOs authority on budget, acquisition and human resources as they relate to technology.

As agencies adapt to the new law, they’re not only redefining the CIO role, but figuring out how to centralize IT operations — a calculus that has trickle-down effects throughout government.

Projected Benefits of FITARA

Although FITARA emphasizes the need for strong CIOs, McKinney and others say implementing the law will require unprecedented levels of collaboration with other government officials.

“FITARA creates a closer working relationship between the chief human capital officer, the purchasing group, the chief financial officer and my office,” McKinney says, noting that the law requires CIOs to participate in processes led by those other offices. “If we work together well, then we’re going to make this work. At the Department of Transportation, it’s been an amazing catalyst for office-to-office dialogue.”

Proponents of the law say FITARA will push agencies to use a more “agile” development process that will break large projects into more manageable chunks, hopefully reducing time. This will help agencies cut down on redundant applications and the use of rogue IT.

“It’s frustrating for CIOs when they see a project that’s not going well and they don’t have the ability to intervene,” says Ann Dunkin, CIO for the Environmental Protection Agency. “FITARA helps CIOs get into projects early on and helps prevent problems.”

Ram Murthy, CIO for the Railroad Retirement Board, says the new level of involvement will help IT shops ensure that business units aren’t installing software that is harmful or fails to comply with privacy regulations.

FITARA Was Designed to Bring Along ‘Laggers’

“Some organizations might see that as IT providing a roadblock,” Murthy says. “My view is that it’s not a roadblock. I’m providing you with better services so that, down the road, we don’t have to make changes to make sure a service meets FISMA [Federal Information Security Management Act] or other requirements.”

Shawn P. McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights, says that FITARA gives Congress “teeth” to enforce practices that have been pushed for years. “The progressive agencies are well down this path already,” he says. “This law will bring along some of the laggers and say, ‘This is the way we’re doing business now.’”

“I think the CIO has always needed a bigger hammer to make things happen,” McCarthy adds. “I think FITARA has good potential to give them that, resulting in better management.”

FITARA Raises Questions About Centralization

Chad Sheridan, CIO of the Agriculture Department’s Risk Management Agency, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about FITARA, but worries that the law’s implementation might cut out the voices of bureau-level CIOs like him.

Traditionally, a large amount of IT spending came at the bureau level, especially at large decentralized agencies with many subcomponents like the departments of Agriculture and Justice. The role of bureau-level CIOs has been important in tending to the needs of that specific office.

“There is huge value at the bureau level, because that is the intersection of mission and technology,” Sheridan says. “There are a lot of good intentions. But I’ve been in federal government for 20 years, and we know that good intentions pave roads to places that aren’t necessarily very pleasant.”

When Gartner analyzed FITARA last December, the firm emphasized the new power of central CIOs and suggested that the law might lead to “fewer” CIOs in government overall.

McKinney says the Transportation Department is taking the opposite approach: creating new CIO positions to ensure each bureau has a person who can focus solely on technology.

FITARA Is Raising CIO Awareness

“It’s important to find the right balance when consolidating IT management. We know from watching IT trends over time that centralizing everything doesn’t work. Commodity IT, like network services, servers, and help desk is where we need to direct our focus,” McKinney says. “Trying to centrally manage at the application layer, where solutions are unique to business needs, is often a bridge too far.”

The level of centralization will vary from agency to agency, says David Powner, director of IT management issues for the Government Accountability Office. The emphasis, he says, should be on ensuring that CIOs are aware of everything IT-related that happens throughout their organizations to prevent problems later on.

“FITARA, more than anything, focuses on better coordination throughout the agency,” Powner says. “You have someone at the top who knows the entire IT picture.”

Cameron Davidson

Learn from Your Peers

What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.