Federal IT Reform: Are More Laws Needed?

Efforts by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., could lead to significant reform of federal IT management and acquisition.
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There's a move afoot to use legislation to reform federal IT acquisition and management, an idea that appears to be gaining some steam.

Congressional hearings frequently pass with nary a whiff of consequential reform, but two hearings in the last month -- both punctuated by a bipartisan tone and proposed legislation -- indicate that the House of Representatives is serious about using 2013 to overhaul the way the federal government spends money on and manages IT.

The charge has been led by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Issa said Wednesday at a hearing of that committee that he plans to introduce the Federal Information Technology Reform Act (FITARA) within the next three weeks.

In September 2012, Issa and Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., floated a now widely-circulated draft version of FITARA. The draft bill would give more spending power to agency CIOs, codify federal data center consolidation and open-source and cloud-computing guidance, encourage strategic sourcing, establish a Federal Commodity IT Center to coordinate IT acquisition and manage government-wide IT contracts, and strengthen the federal IT acquisition workforce, among other effects.

[ How effective has Obama been at changing the way the government uses IT? Read Obama's IT Transformation Is A Work In Progress. ]

In hearings in January and again on Wednesday, members of the committee, including ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., expressed bipartisan support for Issa's efforts. "We are talking about how do we get the most mileage out of the money we spend, how do we create the systems and the workforce that will give us the results," Davis said at the hearing.

Although there has been no similar legislation introduced in the Senate this year, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., introduced the Information Technology Investment Management Act during the last session of Congress. Carper's bill covered similar ground to Issa's bill. Roger Jordan, VP of federal professional and IT services trade group Professional Services Council, wrote in an op-ed late last month that Carper is "widely expected" to soon reintroduce a version of his bill.

A number of Issa's proposals were met by guarded approval by the former and current government officials and private sector execs assembled as witnesses at Wednesday's hearing. For example, Dan Gordon, the former head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and current dean of government procurement law at the George Washington University Law School, said he supported certain elements of Issa's bill, such as efforts to strengthen the federal acquisition workforce and calls for more strategic sourcing.

Issa's bill got no direct endorsement from Department of Homeland CIO Richard Spires, who was also testifying at the hearing, but Spires voiced no real criticisms, either. Spires applauded the Department of Veterans Affairs' model of IT management, which includes a strong centralized CIO and rigorous program management.

Not everyone is likely to buy in to every part of Issa's plan. In testimony before the committee last month, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said that, in his opinion, additional legislation isn't needed to overhaul federal IT management. However, he conceded in a later interview with InformationWeek that "there potentially is room for legislative motion" in the CIOs' budget authority, although even that would be fraught with concern because of the sometimes bureaucratic way budgets are allocated inside of agencies.

Carper's plan also has numerous distinctions with Issa's bill. It's unclear how or when the House will reconcile its efforts with those that could soon be reintroduced in the Senate, and even the details of Issa's bill remain to be worked out. However, it's clear that Issa is committed to pushing something forward.

"Accomplishing major reform will not be easy," Issa said in a statement. "But streamlining our obsolete approach to federal IT needs to be at the heart of our effort to protect taxpayer dollars from further waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement."

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