Press | November 17, 2016

FITARA Roundtable: How To Improve IT Reform

Censeo Managing Director Kareem El-Alaily, Rich Beutel (Cyrrus Analytics), and Mike Hettinger (Hettinger Strategy Group) sat down with Public Spend Forum to discuss their latest white paper, obstacles to FITARA implementation, and the future of federal IT. Read more on the Public Spend Forum community portal.

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On October 24, Censeo released a white paper outlining ten recommendations to improve the implementation of FITARA across the government. Public Spend Forum sat down with authors Rich Beutel, Kareem El-Alaily and Mike Hettinger to discuss the impact of the white paper in the few weeks since its release.

Public Spend Forum: What has the reaction been to the report thus far?

Kareem: The reaction has been positive overall. We were neither anticipating nor expecting universal approval of all of our recommendations, but we haven’t heard of any major heartburn with any of the recommendations. In terms of meeting our objectives, our intent was to initiate a much-needed dialogue between major FITARA stakeholders as there has been a growing disconnect, primarily between the Executive (HOGR, GAO) and Legislative (OMB, the Agencies) branches. By that measure, the paper is succeeding at getting the parties back to the table to figure out how to improve FITARA.

Rich: We were careful to brief both OMB and GAO and solicit their feedback before the report went final. I know that the report could be interpreted as being critical of the Congressional oversight process, and this is not the case. I think that Congress, with GAO’s direct support, has done a commendable job at pushing forward with FITARA implementation. The purpose of the scorecard is to maintain that momentum by evolving the scorecard. Everyone is rowing in the same direction here.

PSF: What prompted you to initiate this FITARA study?

Kareem:. Following the congressional hearings corresponding to the release of Scorecard 2.0 in May, we began to hear agency-level grumblings about the fairness of the Scorecard. We initially wrote it off as standard venting. But after talking to agencies, we began to notice there were indeed issues with the Scorecard. That prompted us to look deeper into the causes, and we uncovered a few deeper-seated issues – beyond the Scorecard – that are preventing a standardized FITARA implementation across agencies.

Mike:  We really wanted to make sure that agencies, Congress and OMB continued their strong focus on FITARA implementation. Without it, the real changes it sought to promote might go by the wayside.

Rich: We were also concerned that Congressional oversight was losing its credibility with a scorecard that no longer worked. Lack of follow through was, of course, the downfall of Clinger-Cohen, and we didn’t want the same fate to happen to FITARA.

PSF: What were the most surprising conclusions you reached?

Kareem: The biggest surprise was the variance in how FITARA is implemented across agencies, primarily the large difference in CIO authority across different agencies. And the variance had nothing to do with Department size or budget – some agencies that had deeper starting deficits simply did much better applying the spirit of FITARA than others.

Mike:  We knew there we going to be differences in agency implementations, but as Kareem said they were significant.  We understand that one size doesn’t fit all, but there also has to be baseline consistency. For FITARA to be successful agencies need to understand what is expected of them and have it be meaningful.

Rich: We also saw that agencies were not sharing best practices and established processes for FITARA implementation.

PSF: Arguably the most controversial recommendation the paper makes is that FITARA should be more prescriptive and uniform across agencies. In light of the fact that every agency is unique, why did you make this recommendation?

Kareem: We acknowledge that agencies are unique, and that the CIO’s mandate at a small, centralized agency is completely different than the CIO’s mandate at a federated agency with a billion-dollar-plus budget. However, there are certain tenets of FITARA that need to be more uniform, primarily around CIO expectations; otherwise we get 24 agencies applying FITARA 24 different ways. Improved standardization will prevent those agencies that would like to keep the status quo of a de-centralized IT environment – complete with large shadow IT and redundant technology spend – from doing so while rewarding the ones that are trying to meet the letter of the law by optimizing their IT spend. OMB can do this by laying out a basic set of CIO expectations around budget, acquisition and workforce authority, rather than relying on agencies to self-define how they plan to comply to FITARA.

Rich: A recent whitepaper by ACT-IAC defined three levels of FITARA maturity. What we saw was that agencies were not implementing in any kind of consistent fashion, and the goals and milestones established by the FITARA maturity model were not being consistently applied.

PSF:  Rumor is that the next Scorecard is coming out in late November or early December, with hearings to follow soon after. Will your recommendations make it into Scorecard 3.0?

Kareem: Our understanding is that the scores for the third iteration of the Scorecard are being finalized, and in this new version GAO is introducing a new metric around measuring CIO Authority. It’s too late for our changes to make it into this version, but we anticipate that the paper can positively impact the fourth version of the Scorecard due out in the Spring.

Mike:  We want this to guide not only changes in the immediate, adding to the scorecard but to drive long term interest in FITARA implementation.  As Congress and GAO go forward in reviewing how FITARA and the scorecard work, we hope they will keep the recommendations in this paper in mind.

Rich: We do hope that more of our recommendations will be adopted in the next cycle of oversight.

PSF:  What is the most important takeaway of the paper?

Kareem: The takeaway is that FITARA is working, but we can make it better. Any current shortcomings are not due to lack of effort. Everyone we spoke to wants to do the right thing and is working hard to do so. We’re suggesting that improved governance, cooperation and detail can lead to better audit capabilities and, ultimately, better outcomes, which include more efficient and effective IT spend.

Rich: Robust and thorough Congressional oversight are essential to making this work. We want to support this process strongly and continue the push for broad and systematic adoption of the seven pillars of FITARA.

Read more about Censeo’s strategic IT work here.