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4 tentpoles of acting federal CIO's IT modernization plans

Acting Federal CIO Margie Graves knows that the road to modernizing the government's information technology systems will not be paved with a single plan, but a slate of initiatives.

But whether it's the Modernizing Government Technology Act or procurement reform or the cloud or a combination of them that frees agencies from their legacy systems, what will drive the change is an understanding of the information the systems will manage.

"We keep talking about infrastructure, we keep talking about cloud and we keep talking about wires and boxes, but it’s really all about the data," Graves said at a May 9 American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) meeting on IT modernization at the General Services Administration.

"What I mean by that is that we have got to understand our data and the data flows between applications and the business processes so effectively that we know who owns it, we know how it travels, we know how it’s secured, we know how it’s used, we know how it’s misused and we architect accordingly."

But to get to a place where the government can architect that information, Graves said that the Office of Management and Budget would be deploying a spate of strategies to build an infrastructure to acquire updated IT. Among them are:

The MGT Act

Graves said she felt good about the reintroduction of the IT modernization bill, which is on track to pass the House after stalling before the Senate in 2016, in part because of a $9 billion score from the Congressional Budget Office.

"I believe we’re in a good position," she said. "I think we’ve answered most of the questions, particularly the issues associated with the CBO score that we got the last time and understanding that the fund is going to work in a way that is going to allow a [return on investment] and a repayment of the fund that doesn’t necessarily tie back to a CBO score."

Graves added that OMB would be looking for good business cases for the central fund, which sets up revolving funds for agencies to draw from and pay back for larger IT projects. OMB, GSA and the Information Technology Modernization Board will manage the central fund, while agency-specific funds will come from re-programmed funding.

"The elements associated with that business case also need to show that effective ROI, which means you have to have a pretty good baseline to understand the costs that you are expending today. That one is kind of difficult."

The DATA Act

To achieve the granularity needed to show IT spend in detail, Graves said that OMB would be looking at the spending transparency provided by the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which began with standardized agency spend reports on May 9.

"We’re going through this process right now where we are going to utilize the DATA Act and the approaches that have been taken there," she said. "If you were thinking about this in terms of activity-based costing to provide the next level of granularity under the large category costs codes that are already in the DATA Act and have them describe the various types of IT spend we are used to seeing — hardware, software, etc. — and some areas below that."

Reorganization order and shared services will play a role

Graves added that the recent executive order compelling agencies to reorganize their operations and the shared services framework at GSA would both be utilized to streamline the IT modernization process.

"We are going to use the Reorg EO to bring some agencies together that are already partnering and looking at the possibility of shared services for areas where they share business space," she said. "So if you are looking at a unified business process, and it’s inclusive of several agencies, why not come forward with some kind of reorganization element that is associated with that? It’s the same thing with IT modernization."

OMB is also in the midst of a policy shake-up to examine how to handle the risk management involved with baked-in cybersecurity and to see which outdated policies need to be sunsetted.

18F and USDS’s role is secure

The pair of in-house innovation arms are also players in the IT modernization plan. OMB is using an 18F-designed platform to examine its policies and the unit is also working on common platforms to manage the shared services operations.

Graves said that the U.S. Digital Service is "heavily embedded" in agencies with modernization projects, like the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, as well as other projects.

"I see no indication that that’s going to change," she said. "We need that kind of talent applied in the right places. We also need that third element, which is developing digital teams within the agencies and connecting them back to 18F and USDS."

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