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February 07, 2017

Implementing FITARA Together

By Jason Gray


The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) has provided the visibility that I need to do my job. Notably, as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of the Department of Education, it gives me voting and veto rights on the review boards that determine where our IT dollars get spent, even for our larger components, such as Federal Student Aid (FSA). FITARA also provides visibility into the performance of programs and it identifies CIO oversight as critical for the success of these programs. This type of programmatic oversight has enabled me to effectively work with my peers to cancel a poor-performing IT project at another office. To use FITARA successfully in this way, CIOs have to be willing to speak up for their authority and ensure the appropriate decisions are made. The fear of what could happen if I take these steps can sometimes deter CXOs from making tough decisions — to cancel a program — for example. Not only is the fear often never realized, but keeping the interest of the agency as the top priority must be paramount.

It is important to note that FITARA is not a CIO thing – it is a CXO thing. The collaboration that it has engendered in its current form is an area that provides tremendous value to the CIO position. Close working relationships with the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO), and senior procurement executive, for example, are invaluable. One of my component CXO colleagues stated that it was his responsibility to ensure that I am never asked a question to which I have to respond “I don’t know. I have to talk to the component first.” Promoting this type of coordination enables agencies to function as enterprises.

At the Department of Education, we implemented FITARA with a two-pronged, or parallel, approach. One prong is implementation and compliance and the other prong is maturity. The first prong allows us to ensure we hit all of the required elements. We can say “yes, we are reviewing the data from this program weekly.” The second prong asks, “how mature is this compliance?” At the moment we may be reviewing only a sample of the data from this program, but over time we will be able to expand the amount and review significantly. However, this type of implementation takes time and cannot be done all at once. At Education, we aim to significantly increase our maturity during each FITARA reporting cycle. This cyclical process is truly where FITARA provides value.

FITARA itself will also evolve through an iterative process. I have two recommendations for how we as a community can continue evolving and expanding FITARA’s impact. First, the Federal IT community should focus on increasing the collaboration not only between CXO positions, but across federal agencies. I am confident that sharing our two-pronged strategy could help other agencies implement FITARA and I guarantee that other agencies have strategies and lessons learned from FITARA implementation that could benefit the Department of Education.

Second, the community should also focus on increasing IT cost transparency, such as by using the IT Cost Commission’s recommendations to implement the TBM (Technology Business Management) model. The TBM framework aims to standardize the way an organization categorizes IT costs, resources, and services by mapping and allocating costs to standardized categories. The Federal Government currently has an opportunity to coordinate the implementation of this standardization across all agencies.

As we continue moving forward with FITARA, it’s important that all of us recognize that while FITARA provides us much-needed authority, we must pair it with concerted, collaborative approaches to solving our most challenging problems. I look forward to continuing the engagement with my CXO colleagues, especially through the CIO Council, as we move forward with this work.

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