Why Poor FITARA Grades Are a Good Start

November 25, 2015
In The News

You wouldn’t think a report card full of Ds and Fs would make anybody happy. And you wouldn’t think it would provide an opportunity for repairing an ailing institution.

But the awful grades federal agencies earned in the first round of rankings under the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act may have actually done both.

Those grades, handed out by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, were really bad. But Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, chairman of the oversight panel’s Information Technology Subcommittee, promised those grades wouldn’t be used as a club, but as a benchmark. And one chief information officer – one with a batch of Ds and Fs – says so far, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are keeping that promise.

“All in all, I thought [the members of the committee] signaled a willingness to partner up,” Richard McKinney, the Transportation Department’s CIO, told the audience at a Tuesday discussion on FITARA implementation hosted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management. McKinney was one of the CIO who testified at a Nov. 4 hearing about the grades, and the executive branch’s way forward. “I think we [CIOs] should take advantage of it. I said at the hearing, and I'll say it again, I approach FITARA like it’s our last chance to get this right.”

In a Congress where any issue can easily be poisoned by partisan rancor, both McKinney and the David Powner, the Government Accountability Office’s director of information technology management issues, made a point of recognizing the bipartisanship that’s often missing on the Hill. GAO helped the committee establish the criteria to give the grades, and Powner said, “sometimes you couldn't tell who was in the majority or minority in terms of how they wanted to score [the agencies].

If you were writing a Hollywood script about this scenario, the plot might go like this: Government agencies struggle with IT, Congress passes legislation, Congress uses legislation to measure agencies, agencies get really lousy grades. Wouldn’t you write “Congress beats agencies over head with bad grades” next?

That didn’t happen, though. None of the Republicans at the hearing – Hurd, Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, or Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C. – wanted to use the grades to beat up on agency CIOs like McKinney, or the Obama administration, represented at the hearing by federal CIO Tony Scott.

So two things may be happening here. And if Congress delivers on either – or both – of them, agencies could be really big winners.

The first is true measurement, oversight and support for the principles of FITARA. It’s hard to identify anyone in Congress or the executive branch who doesn’t like the law now (although the White House initially said it wasn’t necessary). That’s great. But the Clinger-Cohen Act passed with great fanfare almost 20 years ago; before long, it degenerated into a compliance exercise, then irrelevance. We’re still very, very early in the life of this law, but the fast development of a scorecard, and the bipartisan nature of the awarding of the grades, should be a clear signal to agencies that the tenants of FITARA will be the standard by which they’ll be measured.

The second thing that might be happening is far bigger than FITARA. If Congress is going to get past its poisonous atmosphere, it will have to do it event by event, relationship by relationship – both within itself and with the executive branch. The terrible FITARA grades offered Republicans many opportunities to talk about poor performance in the Obama administration, but they didn’t take the bait, instead focusing on using the grades to understand where agencies are today, so they can hold them accountable for improvement later.

Two subcommittees have jurisdiction on the House side, both under the Oversight Committee: Hurd’s information technology panel, and the Government Operations Subcommittee that Meadows chairs. Both of them tell me they have great working relationships with their ranking members, Reps. Robin Kelly and Gerry Connolly respectively; and Connolly praises Meadows for running his committee in a bipartisan manner, including regular consultations about the subcommittee’s agenda.

Yes, agreeing on IT oversight is not a large piece of the business that Congress undertakes. But small victories on bipartisanship are better than none, and they’ll show members on both sides that getting things done is possible in a divided government. If the leaders at the Office of Management and Budget continue their cooperation and transparency throughout the rest of the Obama administration, perhaps we’ll look back on FITARA as not just transformative for information technology, but for getting things done in government as a whole.