A proposal by House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would reduce the number of CIOs in government — to one per agency — and empower those remaining with more authority to decide how their departments’ IT dollars are spent. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
An ambitious plan is emerging in Congress that, if approved, would represent the most sweeping overhaul of the way agencies buy and manage information technology since the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act, which created chief information officers at all agencies.
At its center is a redefinition of what is a federal CIO: The proposal by House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would reduce the number of CIOs in government — to one per agency — and empower those remaining with more authority to decide how their departments’ IT dollars are spent.
“The Clinger[-Cohen] Act … needs an overhaul for one most important reason, and that is: If you authorize CIOs, then by definition, the term should mean something,” Issa said at a Dec. 3 industry event. “When you have hundreds of them for 24 major agencies, you really don’t have chiefs. And that’s the most important thing that this bill is intended to do is to redefine the term ‘chief’ to mean the chief. … There has to be one responsible individual who then holds their staff at all levels, regardless of their titles and their paygrades, responsible. We really don’t have that in the federal government.”
The plan is outlined in a draft bill called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act that Issa circulated to industry groups for feedback. Issa has not said when he will introduce the bill, but industry groups expect it will be next year. Other proposed reforms in the package include:
Encouraging more use of open-source software.
Consolidating contracting responsibilities so a few “centers of excellence” within the government are responsible for all agencies’ procurements in certain categories.
Increasing the amount of multiagency bulk purchasing — known as “strategic sourcing” — of IT commodities.
More training of IT acquisition staff.
The California Republican’s reform plan is gaining support from industry groups, as well as a key Democrat: Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, the ranking minority member on the House subcommittee that oversees federal IT issues.
Industry groups appear generally supportive of the measure, but they are taking aim at two specific measures in the draft bill: one that would encourage the use of open-source software and another that would designate acquisition centers of excellence within federal agencies. Those parts of the plan “raise serious concerns and must be modified if the bill is to earn our support,” four trade associations representing federal contractors told Issa in a joint Nov. 30 letter.
Acquisition centers of excellence
The bill could enable, for example, the Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services departments to serve as go-to centers for all agencies’ health IT acquisitions. But in their Nov. 30 letter to Issa, the four contractor trade associations said they are concerned this would create more duplicative contracts and undermine the General Services Administration’s federal supply schedules program, in which companies invest heavily. Those signing the letter were TechAmerica, The Coalition for Government Procurement, BSA The Software Alliance and the Information Technology Industry Council.
Under the draft bill, the Office of Management and Budget would designate certain agencies as acquisition centers of excellence to promote best practices in specialized areas of contracting, such as cybersecurity or financial management software. The centers would also perform fee-based services on behalf of other agencies, including consulting, awarding, administering or closing out contracts or task orders.
Agencies would be required to consult with the centers on IT acquisitions that exceed $5 million and fall under the expertise of a center. Should agencies not consult with them, they would have to justify their reasons to OMB.
Every two years, OMB would determine whether an agency remains a center of excellence.
Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said companies would benefit from the newly created centers because they would no longer have to spend money vying for business on numerous competing contracts, and the bill would save government administrative costs by reducing duplicative contracts.
“We are not convinced this structure would do that,” said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of global public-sector government affairs at TechAmerica. “In fact, what you may have is the exact opposite.“
Hodgkins said the draft bill would allow agencies to create new contracts to meet other agencies’ needs. There is no mention in the bill of what this could mean for existing contracts. Rather than potentially creating new contracts, Hodgkins said government should focus on improving existing governmentwide contracts, such as GSA’s federal supply schedule contracts.
Small and minority-owned businesses will be hard-pressed to stretch resources to compete for federal work, Hodgkins said. What happens if contracts at these centers fail to drive much business, or if an agency loses its status as a center, he asked.
A senior staffer for Issa’s committee said agencies serving as centers would mainly play a consulting role and would be expected to present their agency customers with all contracting options, including governmentwide contracts offered at other agencies.
Although the draft bill doesn’t mandate use of contracts offered by a center, there would be great scrutiny of IT projects that forfeited consultations from the centers and ended up failing, the staffer said.
The idea is that specialized acquisitions would be faster and cheaper through the centers, giving agencies an incentive to use them, he said.
One goal of the bill is to reduce duplicative IT contracts, but the bill doesn’t mandate the elimination of inefficient or redundant contracts. Instead, the assumption is that sales would increase on the most cost-effective governmentwide IT contracts, ultimately replacing any inefficient contracts.
The staffer added that the bill would not steer business away from GSA schedules. In fact, GSA would be a likely candidate to house a newly created Federal Commodity IT Acquisition Center under the draft bill.
Unlike the specialized centers of excellence, the commodity IT center would be staffed by experts from across government who specialize in buying common IT goods and services, such as email or other cloud services. Agencies would be required to consult with the commodity IT center for contracts exceeding $50 million.
The commodity IT center would operate as a neutral entity, providing agencies with best practices for purchasing common IT, but could also provide contract vehicles for customers, similar to what GSA provides.
Congress and OMB would be tasked with ensuring that the commodity IT center and the centers of excellence weren’t biased in steering agencies’ business toward their contracts without considering the best contracting option across government, the staffer said.
Open-source software guidance
Another concern of industry is the bill’s promotion of open-source software.
The bill calls for streamlining the federal approval process of open-source software, maintenance and support of the software, and guidance clarifying that the government’s preference for commercial products includes open-source software.
In their letter to Issa, the industry groups argued that encouraging greater use of open-source software could prejudice agencies’ use of other commercial software when deciding what software to invest in.
“Technology neutrality is the official policy of the U.S. government,” said Katherine McGuire, vice president of government relations for BSA The Software Alliance, whose members include Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and Oracle.
McGuire said the provision is unnecessary because agencies already are encouraged to consider open-source software when planning new IT projects. She pointed to a January 2011 OMB memo to agencies that says “in the context of developing requirements and planning acquisitions for software … agencies should analyze alternatives that include proprietary, open source and mixed source technologies.”
Ahmad, with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the bill is not promoting or mandating the use of open-source software, but rather it makes it easier for agencies to use open source.
“I released the discussion draft to promote exactly this kind of dialogue amongst all stakeholders,” Issa said in a statement to Federal Times about industry’s concerns.
His staff is gathering comments on the draft bill, and the next step is to release a revised draft for additional comments, which may include revisions to clarify the role and intent of the centers and to ensure no one type of software is being promoted in the bill.