A majority of agencies fared poorly on the latest version of the Federal Information Technology Reform Act scorecard, but there are three simple actions that agencies can take to improve their scores and overall IT management in the next six months, according to the Government Accountability Office’s Director of IT Management Issues Dave Powner.
The sixth iteration of the FITARA scorecard featured seven complete categories and one preview category, which the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee determined would best measure agency IT management and procurement.
Powner told the committee at a May 23, 2018, hearing that no agency would receive a failing grade on upcoming scorecards if they improve their chief information officer’s reporting structure, create working capital funds to save money for IT modernization projects and better keep track of their software licensing.
“These three things that are associated with higher grades are doable by the next scorecard,” Powner explained, saying that the three B’s, 12 C’s, eight D’s and one F found on the current scorecard would change to five A’s, 14 B’s, and five C’s.
“We have identified the low-hanging fruit which would improve grades across the table. These three simple steps are already laid in statute and every agency should be adopting the reforms immediately,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said.
According to Powner, many agencies, the large ones in particular, struggle with implementing these simple changes because it goes against the way things have always been done.
“Those three basic things are just the way that we’ve always done things at agencies. Some CIOs are buried in the agencies and we need to elevate them, those working capital opportunities to reinvest savings is a great idea and everyone should have a way to record, whether it’s software licenses or anything else,” Powner said. “So those three things are really basic steps, and if you get that even [the Department of Defense] can get a C.”
The DoD has received an F on the past three scorecards, and currently has failing grades in the CIO authority enhancement, software licensing and working capital fund categories.
Currently, nine of the total 24 agencies evaluated by the FITARA scorecard do not have their CIO report directly to the agency secretary or deputy secretary. Without that kind of reporting structure, Powner said, CIOs are not guaranteed the authority to make necessary changes to agency IT investment plans.
For example, the Department of Agriculture CIO Gary Washington, who also testified before the committee, said that he currently believes his position has the necessary authority to direct the IT investments for the agency without being formally cemented in the higher reporting structure.
However, Powner said that such an informal structure could ultimately fail a CIO that is less well-received at the agency.
“I think it reinforces why you want that direct reporting to the top, because I agree that Mr. Washington has a lot of respect internally, but if he walks out the door tomorrow, is someone going to come in and have respect immediately and access to the top? I don’t think that, necessarily, that’s the case,” Powner said. “Who wants to accept a job as a CIO if you’re buried down in the agency multiple layers?”
A change in the reporting structure is relatively easy for USDA, as delegated authorities already provide the CIO with that kind of leadership, and the agency would only need to change the official organization chart to reflect that.
Working capital fund
The Modernizing Government Technology Act, signed into law in December 2017, gave agencies the authority to establish working capital funds for IT investments, where money could be saved up across fiscal years to eventually use toward large IT modernization projects.
The FITARA scorecard measured whether agencies had an MGT-specific working capital fund, whether they had plans for such a fund, if an agency already had a department-level working capital fund or if no moves had been made in that area.
According to Powner, if agencies are going to rely on a general working capital fund to save IT dollars, that fund will have to be appropriately partitioned and given over to the authority of the agency CIO, so there is no concern that money saved could somehow be taken away from the IT department.
The Making Electronic Government Accountable By Yielding Tangible Efficiencies Act of 2016 required that CIOs keep an accounting of all software licenses held by the agency, and was first incorporated into the FITARA scorecard in June 2017.
According to Washington, incorporating MEGABYTE requirements into the USDA’s software license management was relatively easy.
“I can’t think of any reason, sir, why it would be hard,” Washington told the Committee Chair.
USDA was one of eight agencies to receive an A in software licensing. Two agencies received a C, meaning that they kept an account of software licensing but didn’t use it for decision-making on costs, and the remaining 14 agencies had no inventory of software licenses and received an F.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.