Government IT budgeting was hard enough even before government shutdowns, says this former government CIO. What can be done to combat the dynamic with Congress?
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When I was the CIO for the U.S. Department of Transportation, I had the first-hand experience of working with the U.S. Congress. Most of my interactions with specific Congressional committees were very pleasant and cordial. Congressional committees were genuinely interested in understanding the problems facing federal CIOs like me and finding solutions.
However, everyone knows that Congress as a whole is dysfunctional, as is evidenced by the chain of events leading to Tuesday's government shutdown, as well as by recent Gallup Polls -- mainly because of a few partisan members.
What's less well known is how this dysfunctionality affects federal IT departments and therefore has a ripple effect on the entire U.S. economy -- and what can we do to correct it. I sure don't have all the answers but I want to get this discussion going!
But to appreciate how disruptive Congressional inaction can be, it helps to understand how arduous it is to get the path to an IT project started.
Federal IT Budget Process Is Complicated
The federal budgeting process is complex and time consuming in the best of times. If you are a government IT system owner in one of the bureaus of a large agency, seeking to fund a new system, you typically need to begin making your case at least three years in advance with bureau CIOs, CTOs, CISOs, your office head and others in leadership positions. Assuming you get a nod there, you will need to get additional approval from your bureau administrator and CFO before it reaches the central office of the secretary.
Here the request competes with other department-wide budget priorities and will typically need approval from the departmental CIO, CFO, counsel, deputy secretary and the secretary. If you clear this hurdle, and your request gets rolled up into the departmental budget, it now must survive another review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where it competes with the president's priorities and submissions from other government departments.
You are one of the lucky few if your request makes it into the "President's Budget Request," which contains detailed information on policies, revenue and spending proposals with significant budgetary implications.
This Presidential budget request now moves to Congress, where the House and Senate must pass a budget resolution (budget blueprint), then conduct hearings and "mark up" the appropriations bill, followed by voting on the appropriations bills and reconciling the differences between House and Senate versions. Once this is done, the President can sign the budget into law and your new IT project is now funded!
Expect Trimming And Transformation
During this entire process, your funding requests will have many twists and turns. There will be multiple requests for written justifications; there will be hearings; and you can count on the request to be trimmed and even transformed. So while you might have proposed A, B and C, you should consider yourself lucky if you get half of B and C and potentially D in exchange, which you did not ask for!
Of course, during these three years of the budget process, your requirements change, priorities change and technologies advance. And all this is for a single project. Usually there are multiple projects. The process is daunting and offers a window onto why the average tenure of major agency CIOs is only two to three years and why you continue to hear of boondoggle projects.
But Wait: CRs Are Here To Stay
If for any reason the Congress does not pass an appropriations bill or if the president fails to sign it into law, selected departments or the entire government can run out of money and the non-essential parts of government will cease to operate, as we're now witnessing.
To prevent this debacle, the Congress has the power to pass continuing resolutions -- affectionately called CRs or minibuses in Washington-speak -- that can fund the agencies until this issue is resolved. The CRs can fund existing federal programs only at current, reduced or expanded levels. Typically, expanded levels of funding are a non-starter.