GAO chief: CIO departures are ‘an area of concern’

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As far as most items on the Government Accountability Office’s High-Risk list go, the problem of IT acquisition is a relative newbie.

GAO added IT acquisition in 2015 to the High-Risk list — a biennial register of federal programs most vulnerable to potential waste, fraud and abuse dubbed the “Hotel California” of agency oversight —  for continued project cost overruns, schedule delays and a lack of return on investments. Congress has since, through legislation, empowered CIOs to shape agency technology strategy and attempt to rein in risky investments.

But a recent rash of CIO and senior tech executive departures, combined with a lack of appointed replacements by the Trump administration, has GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro slightly worried about the gains made and the road to go for IT acquisition.

“That’s an area to be concerned about,” Dodaro said Wednesday at a National Academy of Public Administration event on the High-Risk list. “We need good strong CIOs, we need good strong [chief financial officers] in the government. And the investment the government has made every year [in IT], it’s about $80 billion or $90 billion, and we feel that the federal government does not get an adequate return on that investment.

“If people aren’t in place in senior management positions to manage that risk, that’s of concern to me,” he said.

In the past month, Office of Personnel Management CIO Dave DeVries, Navy CIO Rob Foster, Agriculture Department CIO Jonathan Alboum, Department of Veterans Affairs cloud strategist Roopangi Kadakia and Environmental Protection Agency CISO Sean Kelley announced they were either leaving government or changing roles within their agencies.

Prior to that, Treasury CIO Sonny Bhagowalia was reassigned within in the department, and Department of Homeland Security CIO Richard Staropoli stepped down just months into his role.

When GAO’s 2017 High-Risk list report came out in February, it noted that agencies had achieved one of five criteria recommended for removing IT acquisition from the list: Leadership Commitment.

The report called on agencies to further empower CIOs through the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act to help lead reform and risk mitigation efforts, as well as implement an outstanding 437 open recommendations from GAO.

“Specifically, agencies need to improve their capacity to successfully manage IT investments by fully implementing the CIO authorities described in FITARA and ensuring that program staff have the necessary knowledge and skills to acquire IT,” the report said. “Regarding monitoring of IT investments, agencies need to improve how their CIOs assess investment risk and how they report incremental development status.”

But GAO officials also stressed in the report that agencies must better plan to close the IT workforce skills gaps. Those kinds of moves will likely come from top-down leadership, starting with the federal CIO’s office, which is currently led by Margie Graves.

Dodaro said his office frequently meets with agency leadership and will follow how they shape their approach to IT oversight.

“We’ll be watching that and will see what the impact that’s going to have, both in terms of vacancies, but also what it will do the pace of implementing the reforms under FITARA to give the CIOs more authority in IT procurements in the budget process as well,” he said. “That’s an area to pay attention to.”

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CIO, Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), FITARA, Gene Dodaro, Government Accountability Office
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