Dave Powner’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports frame many Congressional IT hearings. His team produces the FITARA scorecard. That’s why his name can strike fear in the hearts of CIOs across the Federal government. But Powner insists that as long as CIOs and agency officials are being transparent and open, there’s no reason to be afraid. As Director of IT Management Issues for GAO, Powner works with Congressional committees and Federal agencies to ensure that Federal IT initiatives are effectively managed, so taxpayers see a good return on their investment.

In an interview with MeriTalk, Powner shares more on his role at the GAO and the direction he thinks Federal IT needs to take in 2018.

MeriTalk: What’s your role at GAO–how long have you been there, and what does that mean on a day-to-day basis?

Dave Powner: I oversee IT reviews of several major departments as well as government-wide, multi-agency priorities tied to GAO’s IT acquisitions and operations high-risk areas. I also work closely with agencies and the Hill on FITARA. Our reviews focus on critical areas such as CIO authorities, incremental development, improving IT transparency with the IT Dashboard, IT budgeting, data center optimization, and addressing insecure legacy systems.

On a day-to-day basis, this means that I work with multiple Congressional committees who ask for our reports and agency CIOs that we are reviewing for those reports. I also work closely with my teams at GAO, who deserve lots of credit for the great oversight and analyses they conduct. I have been at GAO in this role for the past 15 years.

What are the three most challenging problems/biggest opportunities in Federal IT?

The greatest challenge facing Federal IT is that we aren’t empowering IT leadership and the larger workforce. Tackling this challenge starts with improving CIO authority. Currently, CIOs have all the responsibility (especially if there is a major acquisition failure or a security incident), but not all the authority. CIOs must be empowered to stop poorly performing projects and they need greater insight into what the entire agency is acquiring and securing. We need to move more away from the model of CIOs being policy shops that can’t enforce the policies they create. Once we empower IT leadership, we need to encourage leaders to buy more and build less–this includes more commercial products and cloud solutions. Finally, the government needs to tackle migrating old mission-critical legacy applications.

FITARA has not changed Federal IT efficiency–what needs to change to give it teeth, and/or does it need teeth?

FITARA needs to have the backing of department and agency leadership. Many of these departments have deep rooted cultures that are difficult to change. Without the support of secretaries or their deputies, FITARA implementation will not be where it needs to be.

What are your recommendations on how to do MGT right?

MGT needs a fast start–having clear accountability and processes for the working capital funds are critical. I think you’ll see Congress, with the GAO’s help, perform aggressive oversight on the establishment and use of these funds.

What are you working on right now?

We have a lot going on right now. In terms of CIOs, we’re focused on improving CIO authority and ensuring CIOs are participating in the IT contract approval process. The priorities for my team right now include IT budgeting, cloud adoption, and data center optimization. We’re also focusing on some modernization projects with the IRS and the VA electronic health record modernization, as well as some new weather satellite acquisitions. We’ve started prepping for the 2020 census by working on acquisitions and cybersecurity. Last, but not least, we have FITARA 6.0 grades on the horizon–currently scheduled for May 2018.

The Congressional committees that I work for on this portfolio of Federal IT issues deserve credit for their excellent oversight of these issues. Particularly the House Oversight and Government Reform leadership–Reps Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., Elijah Cummings, D-M.D., Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Gerry Connolly, D-V.A., Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Robin Kelly, D-Ill.–and their bipartisan approach to these issues is the best I’ve seen over the years.

Could you provide some stats or insights about Federal IT that folks might find surprising?

The reported $90 to $100 billion that is spent on Federal IT annually is easily two times that amount if we captured the embedded IT that is in programs throughout the government.

A lot of Federal IT folks fear GAO–should they?

They should absolutely fear GAO if they aren’t transparent and open with the issues that face their programs and initiatives. If they are open and transparent, then they have no reason to fear me or my team. Many Federal IT acquisitions and operations are inherently risky and challenging, and Congress wants assurance that these programs are effectively managing risk. No one is looking for perfection, just sound management. Hiding the ball doesn’t work so well. Knowing your risks and aggressively managing them does, even when setbacks or missteps occur.

If you were Federal CIO, what would you change?

First off, I would make the cyber sprint focus, that occurred after the Office of Personnel Management breach, permanent. Tony Scott deserves credit for his great work here.

Next, I would work to have every department and agency CIO report to the head of their respective organizations to bolster their authority and visibility.

I also would not fund any IT acquisitions that couldn’t deliver some functionality within the budget year.

In the same funding vein, I would work with Congress on more multi-year funding and flexibilities to carry over IT funds. In terms of implementation, I would tie the carryover funds to the working capital funds established in the MGT Act.

In terms of cloud, I would double or triple cloud adoption at each department or agency, depending on what has been done to date.

How did you come to GAO?

I started at GAO in 1988 after my undergraduate degree. I worked on great modernization efforts at the Department of Defense, National Weather Service, and Federal Aviation Authority. Then I went to the telecommunications industry, where I managed large software development programs before deciding to return to GAO.

If you weren’t in the Federal IT business, what would you be and why?

My dream job would be a college basketball coach. I’ve coached boys and girls AAU teams for over 20 years and currently coach for an ex-NBA player who played in the league for 13 years. I have a passion for the game, the competition, and enjoy working with kids.

Any final thoughts–anything I haven’t asked you that I should have?

The staff who lead this body of work at GAO deserve mention–Dave Hinchman, Colleen Phillips, Kevin Walsh, Sabine Paul, Jon Ticehurst, Nicole Jarvis, and Mark Bird. They are a very talented group and I’m very fortunate to work with them.

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Steve O'Keeffe
Steve O'Keeffe
The most connected executive in the government technology community – O'Keeffe is an accomplished entrepreneur and tech-policy expert, with 30 years’ experience as an innovator at the crossroads of government and industry. He founded MeriTalk, O'Keeffe & Company, 300Brand, among other entities. O'Keeffe is a fixture on the Hill, in both the House and Senate, testifying on IT, budget, government workforce, and the requirement to modernize government IT to enhance outcomes for the American people and government employees. He is a champion for change, simplification, transparency, and clear communication of IT value without jargon. A committed philanthropist, O'Keeffe has served for 15 years on the USO-Metro Board of Directors – Vice Chairman of the Board and Chair of the Annual Awards Dinner. He started his career as a journalist – O'Keeffe has contributed to The Economist, Government Executive, Signal Magazine, The Washington Post, and, of course, MeriTalk.