Is IT still in sight?

Rep. Tom Davis raised IT's profile, but some question where it stands on his current priority list

Issues on Davis' agenda

Although some current and former government IT officials have questioned whether the House Government Reform Committee has paid enough attention to IT matters recently, chairman Tom Davis' (R-Va.) oversight agenda could assuage some of those concerns.

In a broad draft agenda obtained by GCN, the committee is considering looking into a wide swath of IT matters, ranging from reforming the Federal Information Security Management Act to technology entitlements and systems modernization.

The focus on security is not surprising given many large agencies' continuing inability to improve their scores. The committee likely will ask the Government Accountability Office to report on why many agencies are failing to comply with FISMA.

Other IT-related matters the committee might hold hearings on or otherwise consider include:

  • IT infrastructure protection

  • Use of technology for criminal financing and terrorist propaganda

  • University computer system security

  • Electronic records

  • IP Version 6

  • Continuity of communications

  • Technology standards in IT acquisitions

  • Information sharing

  • Peer-to-peer file sharing

  • Privacy

  • Technology entitlements

  • Digital tech corps

  • Federal Aviation Administration

  • Best practices in government

  • Creating a federal CIO

  • Paperwork Reduction Act/OMB IT administration

Eighteen months ago, House Government Reform Committee chairman Tom Davis moved technology oversight from the subcommittee level to the full committee, raising hopes that IT initiatives would benefit from the larger stage.

But a review of committee activities since the change suggests that attention to important IT initiatives appears to be waning, and some projects may be losing traction.

Since February 2005, Davis (R-Va.) has held 13 hearings on federal IT matters. He also has requested 16 Government Accountability Office reports on federal IT matters ranging from information sharing to the Census Bureau's technology acquisitions.

This is in marked contrast to the scrutiny IT received before Davis disbanded the Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census in 2004.

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), the subcommittee's last chairman, held 23 hearings on IT matters between 2003 and 2004, and requested nearly 30 GAO reports.

In the meantime, since moving IT to the full committee, critical IT efforts such as E-government and the Lines of Business Consolidation initiative have come under increasing fire from obstinate agencies and congressional appropriators, who have added a growing number of provisions in recent legislation that have made E-government more difficult to implement.

While some thought bringing IT oversight to the full committee would give it a broader stage to have a greater impact, others note that Davis has not paid as much attention to these issues as many had hoped.

'I think he's focused on really good issues from a government reform point of view,' said a former senior government official steeped in IT matters. 'I think he's doing a great job, but the focus just isn't there on IT.'

Most former and current federal officials interviewed for this story would only speak on condition of anonymity, citing Davis' position as chairman of a congressional committee.

Repeated requests for an interview with Davis for this story were not granted.

More consistent oversight

No one doubts that Davis is the right man for the job. He has no shortage of fans and supporters among the federal IT community, and all believe he has the smarts, political savvy and technical expertise to oversee how government agencies use and invest in IT products and services.

But some current and former federal IT officials wonder if the range of issues on the committee's radar'which includes steroid use in baseball, public schools in Washington, military pay benefits and regulation of dietary supplements'is spreading the powerful congressman too thin.

And, some observers say, this lack of focus'whether real or perceived'has affected agencies in concrete ways.

Aside from E-government and the Lines of Business initiative, other IT issues, such as information sharing and even cybersecurity'one issue Davis has concentrated on'require more consistent oversight that it's getting, some experts said. Officials said this diffusion of focus has caused a slowdown in how projects have been funded by the Appropriations Committee, federal progress in sharing information and pushing e-government to citizens.

But others conceded that there is a benefit to the new arrangement.

A former staff member on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee said the full committee 'has a broader palate, but they have more power and the ability to enact change.'

Robert White, spokesman for the Government Reform Committee, said the decision to move IT oversight to the full committee reflects Davis' ownership of IT issues and his desire to bring the most force behind the committee's investigations.

'Nothing beats the full committee's big microphone,' White said. 'Davis pulled the two issues most important to him up to the full committee'D.C. and IT/procurement. That speaks volumes.'

When Davis moved IT to the full committee, he said, it reflected how prevalent and important IT matters have become for government business and promised rigorous oversight.

As congressional members go, everyone interviewed for this story said, Davis brings a level of understanding to IT issues that few can match, providing both federal and private-sector IT leaders a staunch advocate and unique platform for their concerns.
'Tom Davis is probably the industry's biggest cheerleader inside the House and his work is greatly appreciated,' said one former government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But in the past 18 months, the rigorous oversight has been inconsistently applied. Davis has been active on certain important topics such as the General Services Administration's reorganization, the Treasury Department's Treasury Communications Enterprise telecommunications contract and, to some extent, IT security. But he hasn't yet addressed, at least publicly, a number of other IT issues, including IT project management, enterprise architecture and records management.

Still, even with Davis' knowledge, the full committee's bully pulpit seems to have not been noticed by federal workers.

Even with Davis' background in industry as general counsel with PRC, a systems integrator, his focus on IT at the full committee has waned, according to observers.

'One doesn't even have to be a close observer of the Government Reform Committee to see that Tom Davis has had more of an interest in steroids in baseball than IT issues,' said one federal IT official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'Putnam is missed; he brought incredible attention to IT.'

Before leaving for the Rules Committee, Putman held more than 40 hearings on IT matters from 2002 to 2004, said John Hambel, Putnam's chief of staff. 'I know he was very aggressive in doing it.' But 'I know Tom Davis has a passion for it, too.'

But although the number of hearings has tailed off significantly since the full committee took over the beat, White said there is a distinction between the number of hearings held and the quality of the oversight.

'It's about quality of attention and oversight, not quantity,' White said.

Some observers questioned whether Putnam's volume of hearings focused on the right issues. While he may have held a significant number of hearings, 'Did anything come from those hearings? I don't know,' said a former government official.

Another government official agreed: 'Putnam forced OMB to talk to him instead of work on substantive issues that could have impact. That takes a huge amount of time to get ready for hearings. It was not clear to me that it led to that much improvement.'

Hearings are not the only measure of a committee's oversight efforts, other officials noted.

'Hearings are just one form of oversight,' White said. 'Letters, conversations with agency officials, personal meetings, [Government Accountability Office] reviews'these are just some of the ways Davis and the committee are taking 'action' on a variety of IT topics.'

But other officials said Putnam's focus made a difference for agencies and how much attention IT received from the administration and Congress'the squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease theory.

'Putnam's staff was not very large, but they were able to bring a sharper perspective to what was out there,' said another government official. The 'fact of the matter is, it became more difficult to get [Davis'] staff actively involved on IT issues after it moved to the full committee. They had divided attention.'

The e-gov question

One key area where federal officials believe this 'sharper perspective' has tailed off a bit is in e-government, an initiative that congressional appropriators have not embraced.

The former Senate Governmental Affairs Committee staffer said the appropriators shoulder much of the blame for agencies' mixed progress in implementing the Office of Management and Budget's e-government activities.

'You need both the management expertise and the financial expertise to marry up' to win funds for the initiatives, the official said. The reform and appropriations committees 'don't have that history of working together.'

A House Appropriations Committee staff member said the committee has had little communication with counterparts in Government Reform on e-government and that they'd be interested in any discussions, hearings and other dialogue on the subject.

'If Tom Davis had a big, fat oversight hearing on e-government, we would be very interested in seeing what came out of that,' this staff member said. 'Davis has such a broad jurisdiction so you can't say he is falling down on this, but it would be nice [to see more activity], yes.'

One government official believes that had Davis pushed harder on e-government matters, notably the Lines of Business Consolidation initiative, appropriators and other agencies might not be so reluctant to use such shared services.

'Davis is not leveraging his knowledge or influence of IT and e-government issues across the other members and their staffs,' this official said. 'If he had been, we wouldn't have gotten all the pushback on e-government and Lines of Business that we received.'

But White, the Government Reform Committee spokesman, said Davis has been meeting with appropriators on these issues and 'totally disagrees' that oversight has been lacking. 'We continue to push e-government with appropriators whenever we can,' he said.

And some critical issues, like GSA's pending reorganization and information sharing across agencies, have benefited from the full committee's weight, observers said.

A GSA official said Davis' support is helping the agency merge the Federal Technology and Federal Supply services into the Federal Acquisition Service and the corresponding spending funds into a single acquisition fund.

'Davis is very much engaged in stuff we do,' this official said. 'From our standpoint, Davis is a person that is actively engaged in the substance and that has been true for some time. He does things that are right for government.'

OMB officials said e-government has also benefited from the full committee oversight and demonstrates that the initiative has become mainstream and accepted throughout government.

'Davis' decision to move IT to the full committee reflects the widespread acceptance of the e-government programs,' said Karen Evans, OMB administrator of E-Government and IT.

An administration official added that having Putnam's constant focus was important when the E-Government Act'which Davis shepherded through the House'was first passed in 2002. But as e-government evolved and matured, that scrutiny is no longer required.

'I thought having the narrow focus on the initiative was good when things were nascent and just getting launched,' the officialsaid.

The committee's interaction with OMB on e-government issues has not changed since the subcommittee was disbanded, the official said. 'It was Tom Davis who got the [e-government] bill through,' the official said. 'He's been interested in this stuff all along and I think he's still interested.'

While most appreciate the full committee's wider scope, some worry that some significant matters are left out of view.

'IT is one of his topics, but it is no substitute for a subcommittee,' said a senior IT official.

GCN assistant managing editor for news Jason Miller contributed to this story.

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