Sep 13 2017

CIO Turnover Sparks GAO Concern for Federal IT Reform

IT acquisition has landed on the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List, and with sands shifting for tech leaders, reining in ineffective spending could be more difficult.

IT modernization and acquisition are tricky but necessary tasks for federal agencies. With a recent set of CIO and tech executive departures, the Government Accountability Office warns that it’s possible the task could get even more difficult.

IT Acquisition Gets Marked as High Risk

Just this summer, several senior tech leaders in agencies across the federal government announced they’re leaving their posts, FedScoop reports. Departures include: Office of Personnel Management CIO David DeVries, Navy CIO Rob Foster, Agriculture Department CIO Jonathan Alboum, Department of Veterans Affairs cloud strategist Roopangi Kadakia and Environmental Protection Agency CISO Sean Kelley.

Concerned with how the turnover might impact IT reform, the GAO has placed the topic of IT acquisition on its High Risk List, a register of “agencies and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation,” released every two years.

The report calls out improving the management of IT acquisitions and operations as an area that needs “substantive attention.”

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“Although the executive branch has undertaken numerous initiatives to better manage the more than $80 billion that is annually invested in information technology (IT), federal IT investments too frequently fail or incur cost overruns and schedule slippages while contributing little to mission-related outcomes,” the GAO states.

While Congress enacted the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) in December 2014 with the aim to provide CIOs with greater power to shape agency tech strategies, the GAO Comptroller Gen. Gene Dodaro echoed worries that a lack of leaders in these positions could limit effective IT acquisition.

“That’s an area to be concerned about,” Dodaro said at a recent National Academy of Public Administration event on the High Risk List, reiterating that government spends about $90 billion on IT a year and doesn’t often get a solid return on its investment, FedScoop reports. “If people aren’t in place in senior management positions to manage that risk, that’s of concern to me.”

Recommendations to Improve Federal IT Acquisition

So how can the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and federal agencies address the issues facing IT acquisition?

First, the GAO encourages the federal government to “expeditiously implement the requirements of FITARA.”

These requirements include:

  • Consolidating federal data centers
  • Enhancing transparency and improving risk management
  • Enhancing agency CIO authority
  • Reviewing IT investment portfolios
  • Expanding training and use of IT acquisition cadres
  • Purchasing software governmentwide
  • Maximizing the benefit of federal strategic sourcing

“While OMB's June 2015 FITARA implementation guidance provides a solid foundation for implementing the law and addresses the actions agencies are to take in regard to several initiatives that we have identified as high risk, OMB will need to provide consistent oversight to ensure that agency actions are completed and the desired results are achieved. Doing so should continue to improve the transparency and management of IT acquisitions and operations, as well as increase the authority of CIOs to provide needed direction and oversight,” the report finds.

Moreover, the GAO encourages the federal government to implement previous guidance around workforce planning practices that can help to address the skills gap and encourage more effective team collaboration.

“When fully implemented, these key practices should better position agencies to efficiently make decisions that cross lines of expertise and improve their ability to assess and address gaps in knowledge and skills that are critical to the success of major IT acquisitions,” the report notes.

Further, agencies should establish action plans for tech modernization to ensure that IT upgrades and future investments in IT are as effective as possible.

Agencies should also look to provide greater transparency into IT investments by better using the IT Dashboard to track and report tech investments.

And finally, the agencies need to ensure and report continued progress toward these goals, although without key tech leadership, the road to more effective IT acquisition and spending could be rockier.

“We’ll be watching that and will see what the impact that’s going to have, both in terms of vacancies, but also what it will do the pace of implementing the reforms under FITARA to give the CIOs more authority in IT procurements in the budget process as well,” Dodaro said. “That’s an area to pay attention to.”

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