The Government Accountability Office (GAO) Thursday released a report challenging the Obama administration's assessment of its progress on an array of efforts to overhaul the sprawling federal IT apparatus.
The same day, David Powner, GAO's director of information technology management issues, and federal CIO Steven VanRoekel appeared before a subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to offer an update on the government's IT efforts.
"I think we're in agreement that there has been really solid progress across the board. The extent of that progress and what remains, there might be some differences," Powner told the subcommittee federal financial management.
"One tangible example is data center consolidation," he said. "There's great progress there. We have accountable individuals. We have plans in place. But we also know that the inventories and plans aren't where they need to be yet."
Powner acknowledged that GAO has observed "solid momentum" on IT reform since the White House unveiled a 25-point plan for IT reform in December 2010, noting that all of the major departments and agencies have dedicated program managers to oversee their data-center consolidation efforts.
But the new GAO report found that of the 10 "action items" on the government's IT reform agenda that auditors evaluated, seven were behind schedule, only partially completed as of December 2011.
VanRoekel countered that much of the discrepancies in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and GAO assessments could be attributed to "scoping" issues associated with the White House's 25-point plan, stressing that the initiative is ongoing, and that efforts in areas such as data-center consolidation are marked by clear deliverables.
"Federal IT reform doesn't begin or end with the 25-point plan," he said.
VanRoekel's team is leading the charge to eliminate duplicative and legacy applications and infrastructure as agencies are tasked with achieving more productivity and delivering more robust services while operating under flat or contracting budgets.
Departments and agencies have already decommissioned 267 data centers, and are on track to have that number reach 429 by year-end, with hundreds more slated for closure by 2015, according to VanRoekel.
"Our consolidation work reflects a larger shift in the government's mindset from a capital-intensive asset-ownership model to more service-oriented models," VanRoekel said. "Under the administration's cloud-first policy, there have been many successful migrations of the services to the cloud, which have led to the elimination of more than 50 legacy systems, and met our initial goals on cloud migration."
VanRoekel described the role of the federal CIO as "enabling the mission of government," arguing that from a cultural perspective, IT must be viewed as more of an integral part of the business operations within agencies and departments.
"Private sector companies as a norm view IT as a critical strategic asset," he said. "I think there's a bit too much of looking at IT as just a discretionary piece of the equation & when it is so much more of what we need to embrace to drive the future of this country."
After assuming the role of federal CIO, the second person to hold that position, VanRoekel helped articulate a policy that sought to expand the role of the federal CIO beyond simply maintaining infrastructure and formulating IT usage policies. That OMB memo directed CIOs to take a more commanding role in their respective agencies' budgeting process, calling for a strategic focus on curbing waste and duplicative systems while shifting spending to more innovative solutions that can achieve higher levels of services.
But, according to a recent survey by TechAmerica, many federal CIOs continue to labor under what they see as compromised authority within their agencies, limiting their ability to enact the sweeping IT reform goals that the administration has set.
"CIO authorities need to be strengthened," Powner said. "Many CIOs in the government still do not have the appropriate authority to effectively manage IT portfolios at their respective agencies."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.
Read more about government use of it in CIO's Government use of IT Drilldown.