The year past has illustrated on a grand scale that if the U.S. government maintains just one agency that is a waste of taxpayer money, it’s the Federal CIO. The position of U.S. Chief Information Officer began in March 2009; Vivek Kundra, appointed by President Barack Obama, took the helm of the government’s central IT office but left the position less than three years later. Current CIO Steven VanRoekel has had the honor of the CIO title since Kundra’s departure, being in office for major IT debacles such as the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov and the ongoing NSA spying scandal. And let’s not forget the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI) that Kundra boldly announced—progress has been meager at best, with even the definition of a data center being difficult to pin down.
The website that needs no introduction, Healthcare.gov, remains problematic: not only is its core function still in limbo, but the security is also lacking. In particular, given the system’s storage of vast amount of data on citizens that apply for health insurance, the woeful state of security is doubly outrageous—particularly when it’s on the part of a government that regularly hounds private companies for data breaches. Citing the government’s lack of expertise in IT, President Obama said, “One of the things [the federal government] does not do well is information technology procurement…this is kind of a systematic problem that we have across the board.”
So, where’s the Federal CIO? According to CIO.gov, the agency “aspires to promote a bright and prosperous future for the United States through the strategic use of Federal IT. It seeks to drive efficiency and effectiveness across Government, spurring innovation, protecting and defending our resources and more effectually bringing Government services to the American People.” The Federal CIO position, as well as the broader office, predates Obamacare, yet it apparently has done little to even spur the government to make minimal progress toward its vision. The Obamacare website, had it been the product of a private industry, would likely have put its host company out of business. It might have even led to jail sentences for executives.
Apart from President Obama, much of the blame for the Healthcare.gov fiasco went to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius—not exactly a leading authority in managing complex IT systems. Federal CIO VanRoekel, despite decrying the “unacceptable situation” of Obamacare, nevertheless said he serves mostly as “a convener and facilitator of agencies to work through the technical details of the cross-agency implementation work of the ACA,” according to FedScoop. Exactly what that entails is less than clear. In the meantime, though, a new contractor (and a hefty new price tag) will no doubt fix all the problems with the program.
Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDCCI)
According to ZDNet’s David Chernicoff, “By almost any measure, the government IT plans for the cost and energy saving [data center] consolidation initiative has been a failure when it comes to meeting its original goals and timelines.” The definition of a data center has changed since the program was announced, with the number of facilities having shot to almost 7,000. But the government’s new-found desire to ostensibly save taxpayers some money—estimates for FDCCI savings are in the $5 billion range, although the time frame of such savings (assuming they ever materialize) is uncertain—hasn’t stopped construction of a gargantuan (and troubled) new NSA data center in Utah. According to an FDDCI report updated on November 8, 2013, the initiative has led to closing of over 600 data centers for a total of almost 850,000 square feet of floor space. The new NSA data center alone accounts for some one million square feet.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the federal government is constantly expanding, requiring an ever larger amount of IT infrastructure to support its enormous weight. The result is a moving target that makes an already difficult bureaucratic initiative all but impossible. The Federal CIO cannot be entirely blamed for the difficulties facing the FDCCI, but the main question is whether the office serves any purpose. Inevitably, the government’s answer to sprawl and lack of communication among existing agencies is to create a new agency—witness, for instance, the Department of Homeland Security.
The NSA is largely subsumed under the national-security heading, but any lack of advocacy by the Federal CIO to protect the interests of citizens essentially means the agency has no mandate for privacy—a disturbing fact in light of the government’s far-reaching spying programs exemplified by the NSA, as well as its holier-than-thou attitude toward private businesses with regard to customer information. The situation gives new meaning to CIO.gov’s description of itself as an agency that “keeps the public informed about how our Government is working to close the technology gap between the private and public sectors.”
The recent address by President Obama regarding the NSA has largely been viewed as an inadequate half-measure that does little to rein in the agency’s spying programs (see here, here and here, for instance). The fact that the president prefaced his address with what amounts to a comparison of NSA spying to Paul Revere’s watchfulness for signs of British invasion in the late 1700s demonstrates the lack of any real philosophical objection to unlimited spying, appeals to the Constitution and a balance of privacy and security notwithstanding.
Again, the role of the Federal CIO is questionable. Some might argue that the NSA and its electronic spying capabilities are beyond the realm of the CIO office, but here again, if the Federal CIO has no role in such a wide-ranging IT matter, what is the reason for funding the agency? At this point, one might expect the President to appoint an IT czar to do something about the entire situation—whatever that might be.
The Federal CIO agency, if its minimal role in 2013’s lineup of IT debacles is any indication, lacks a solid purpose in the government. Its supposed mission to serve as a go-between for other agencies is all but futile given the bureaucratic mentality and baseless competition among those agencies. In particular, the absence of the Federal CIO with regard to the disastrous Obamacare rollout is least excusable. Perhaps funding for the office should instead simply be transferred to the next IT contractor charged with fixing Healthcare.gov.
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