How FITARA Can Help Federal Agencies with Their IT Problem

Image taken by Bob Mical.

In 2004, the Department of Veterans Affairs was forced to scrap a multimillion-dollar computer system that was designed to streamline the agency’s costs. Ironically, the project cost taxpayers $265 million, and is one of many examples of federal IT projects which go massively over budget and under deliver. Part of the reason for these failures is the last time we made significant changes to how our government acquired its own IT was the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. This law was enacted the year before Google.com was registered as a domain name, back when Windows 95 was the new big thing. Almost two decades later, while innovation has continued to press forward, our government’s ability to efficiently acquire new IT has lagged miserably behind.

Luckily, a few lawmakers are trying to remedy that. In March 2013, Congressmen Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Gerry Connelly (D-VA) introduced H.R. 1232, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), to overhaul the federal government’s approach to acquiring IT. The bill seeks to designate clear responsibility and authority over federal IT investment, enhance the government’s ability to get good IT, strengthen the federal IT workforce, and remove waste from government IT assets, processes and contracts.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

FITARA empowers federal agency Chief Information Officers (CIOs) to oversee IT contracts, appropriate funding, optimize data center use and make hiring decisions. Established in the Clinger-Cohen Act, these CIO positions currently lack appropriation muscle and have largely existed as decentralized entities. Representative Connolly argues that CIO’s inability to manage IT procurement has resulted in “massive IT program failures that ring up staggeringly high costs, but exhibit astonishingly poor performance.” FITARA would consolidate the number of federal CIOs, giving them the power to create new agency-wide IT policies and manage IT investments.  Under the legislation, federal CIOs could adopt or improve the use of IT, allowing them to better implement innovations like cloud computing software and server virtualization. For example, if the IRS had a CIO with stronger authority, it could have transitioned to a cloud-based email service, saving the agency from its current predicament of having lost a trove of emails.

FITARA also seeks to cut down duplicative waste. Federal agencies spent about $20 billion on IT acquisition in FY2013, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that these projects often run over cost or result in extraneous programs that have little to do with the original objectives. This bill would help officials remove overlapping federal websites, such as the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Service’s (NTIS) website which keeps federal reports that are also available on the originating agencies’ websites, and codify systems like the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) PortfolioStat, a program which cuts down on IT duplication across agencies.

This bill also seeks to increase transparency for the public by enabling CIOs to adopt accountability systems. FITARA would codify systems like IT Dashboard, the website that lets the public view performance metrics for all federal IT programs. Finally, FITARA seeks to strengthen the federal IT workforce by creating career paths for IT managers and recognizing excellent performance with monetary incentives to better compete with the private sector for IT talent.

WHAT IS FITARA’S CURRENT STATUS?

Despite its bipartisan support and importance, the legislation has gotten bogged down in the politics of the federal legislature. FITARA has  passed three times in the House,  with the most recent version being approved as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (NDAA) on May 22, 2014. Representative Issa also sponsored the bill in a slightly different version in mid-2013. This version passed the House earlier this year and was reviewed by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on June 25, 2014. During markup, Senators Tom Coburn and Tom Carper introduced an amendment that significantly changed the original legislative language. This bill then passed as amended onto the full Senate.

As it stands, FITARA is in the hands of Senator Harry Reid, who can decide to bring it to the floor as either an amendment to NDAA or the new version as amended by Senators Coburn and Carper.  If NDAA survives the Senate as it stands—an unlikely occurrence—then FITARA will be enacted. Otherwise, we can expect to see some form of FITARA returned to the House for a vote or sent to a conference committee to resolve its bicameral differences.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?

Representative Issa’s versions would make CIOs a presidential appointment, allowing the President to put experienced people into the role of strategic sourcing. In other words, future presidents can directly appoint proven executives to fill these positions.

The House’s version of FITARA focuses heavily on federal IT acquisition rules and empowering CIOs to take responsibility for modernizing the government’s IT. The bill would develop a Federal Infrastructure and Common Application Collaboration Center to create acquisition rules that would strengthen and streamline the process. The House versions also focus more intently on emphasizing governmental IT career paths by recognizing excellent performances. H.R. 1232 and the NDAA amendment would both create Assisted Acquisition Centers of Excellence (AACE) to enable long-term acquisition planning. Language between H.R. 1232 and the NDAA amendment is mostly the same, but the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee identified a few minor differences, such as removal of language that could create a preference for open source software acquisition.

By contrast Senators Carper and Coburn’s amended FITARA would, along with empowering CIOs, focuses on federal data center consolidation. This amendment removes original language about data centers, largely taking its language from the Federal Data Center Consolidation Act of 2013, which is designed to cut down on the number of federal data centers to optimize associated costs. The amended FITARA takes the emphasis away from tech acquisition and moves it more toward cutting waste and duplication. This version also includes language for a government-wide software purchasing program for shared use across the federal government.

THE TAKEAWAY

Despite the many versions of FITARA being considered on Capitol Hill, this bill is a good step to improving federal IT procurement. It gives federal agency executives the ability to adapt to new technology and new ways of thinking. If it passes, Congress and all implementing agencies must use FITARA to adapt to the future. For far too long the existing acquisition rules have constrained federal agencies to inflexible systems that dictate what technology can be used and how they can adopt it. By centralizing power in presidentially appointed CIOs, we can infuse seasoned knowledge into consolidating our IT programs and cutting waste. The power to adopt new technologies and try alternative processes will give the federal government the ability to change with the times and streamline tax payer money.

But Congress should go further than simply passing FITARA, it must analyze the byzantine ways that federal IT contracts are rewarded and it must give firms a better means of navigating this process. Congress should also tread softly with policies that adopt rigid uniformity, such as government-wide software purchasing. The more rigidity the federal government has in handing out contracts or procuring IT programs, the less it will be able to adapt with the market to changing technologies and innovation. After all, who knows what the future has in store? By passing laws like FITARA, Congress can prepare our federal government to adapt to it.

Image by Bob Mical.

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About the author

Alan McQuinn is a Research Assistant with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation focusing on a variety of issues related to information technology and telecommunications, including digital copyrights, drones, privacy, egov, cryptocurrency and IT procurement. Follow him on Twitter @alanmcquinn.