The House Subcommittees on Information Technology and Government Operations held a “State of Play” Federal IT Hearing Wednesday for the latest updates on ongoing modernization efforts, and the tone was resolute and unflinching.

“Agencies that can’t optimize by 2020 need to get out of the data center business.”

Dave Powner, director of IT Management Issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), didn’t mince words. He was stern in setting forth recommendations for agencies. Progress is on the way, it seems, but not without a concerted effort at tackling the main issues still plaguing government IT.

Centers Aren’t the Only Things We Need to Shut Down 

While data center shutdowns have taken the limelight in recent years, Powner noted there are many other geriatric legacy systems that need to be dismantled.

It was a major sticking point in his discussion with Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill. The IRS individual master file generates $3.3 trillion in revenue. The Vista system at Veterans Affairs contains records essential for providing care. These elements are mission-critical, he noted, and we can’t have them limping into the future.

“We still need firm dates to replace these systems where we actually turn them off,” Powner said.

He addressed Kelly’s query as to why legacy system maintenance accounts for 75 percent of government IT spend. “Historically, operational systems in the Federal government get a pass,” Powner said. “So when you look at something, the lights are on and it’s running and we’re serving the mission. We might not be serving the mission efficiently. We might not be serving the mission securely, but it’s gotten a pass over the years.”

Finding a way to transition then decommission remains a problem without a definitive solution.

One Man to Spend It All?

Parts of FITARA’s implementation also came under scrutiny. While FITARA addressed CIO empowerment tangibly, CIOs’ real authority over acquisitions and budget remain an area of contention. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, asked some hard-hitting questions of new Deputy Director for Management at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Margaret Weichert.

“We can’t hold CIOs accountable if we don’t give them all the power they need,” Hurd said. He suggested reprogramming funds currently spread over numerous “sub-CIOs” and establishing complete budget authority for the full agency CIO.

“We are absolutely in alignment that the CIO for the broad agency needs to have all the capabilities and tools to make these very profound investments,” Weichert said, stopping short of advocating appropriations omnipotence.

Regardless of who spends the funds, CIOs need to be more aware of where their budgets are going, Powner said. The statistics to date are definitely cause for concern.

“Only one-third of agencies had a process to approve IT contracts consistent with FITARA and OMB guidance. And of our sample of almost 100 contracts, only 10 percent were approved by CIOs or their designee,” Powner said.

OMB Outlines New Management Agenda With MGT at Its Heart

Weichert is optimistic about the forthcoming President’s Management Agenda “which places IT modernization at its core.” Details on the extension of FITARA through MGT are expected out in the next week and, according to Weichert, are at the heart of the administration’s vision.

“The MGT Act and the Technology Modernization Fund are absolutely priorities for the administration,” she said, but noted that the myriad challenges facing government IT need to be tackled holistically. “We also need the human capital element, the financial element, the procurement element to be at the same table … We believe that MGT and the Technology Modernization Fund will be great stepping stones toward the future of really pulling all of these dimensions together so that they’re not siloed by function.”

On getting those efforts off the ground, Hurd later noted that implementation plans for MGT working capital funds are due March 27. Weichert said OMB would be able to share the status of the funds in the early summer. Powner, Hurd, and Wiechert were in accord that agencies should aim to have funds deposited by the end of the fiscal year to underscore their commitment to modernization progress.

Other notes on that progress:

  • Hurd said the Department of Defense will be brought in during the next FITARA scorecard hearing to discuss why it decided to no longer declare its ~$40 billion IT spend publicly.
  • The General Services Administration is showing continued progress in establishing its five Centers of Excellence to provide modernization consultation and development resources to agencies, and says shared services are a “core principle” of the President’s IT Modernization Report.
  • The Department of Homeland Security continues to conduct vulnerability assessments to gauge agency security. A recent probe into hardware and software asset management reveals agencies don’t actually know what’s on their networks.

Congress and the administration seem to be coming to play on their promises for IT overhaul, but finding the winning formula is a whole different ballgame. “We’re really good at plans and guidance in this town, but we’re not always good at getting things done and implementing them completely,” Powner said of the malaise and operational gridlock that sometimes stifle innovation around the Beltway. “We’ve got savings out there. We can populate those working capital funds and really do MGT right.”

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Joe Franco
Joe Franco
Joe Franco is a Program Manager, covering IT modernization, cyber, and government IT policy for