While most Federal agencies hung steady with their FITARA (Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act) Scorecard grades for the final half of 2020, the inclusion of one new grading category helped to shake up overall grades – and will continue to do so for the next couple of years.

And just as important to the future of agency FITARA grades over the medium term will likely be changes brought about by the incoming Biden administration, driven by inevitable policy evolution along with new leadership at Federal agencies.

Those are two of the bigger forward-looking takeaways from the 11th edition of the FITARA Scorecard issued by the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Dec. 22. The easiest way to make sense of the committee’s multi-colored scorecard is to check out MeriTalk’s FITARA Dashboard.

Scorecard 11 Recap

The latest FITARA Scorecard graded the 24 largest Federal agencies across nine different categories – some rooted in law and others in policy – to gauge their progress in improving IT operations. The bottom line showed that 16 agencies received identical grades from the previous scorecard issued in August 2020, three earned higher marks, and five saw their overall grades decline.

None of the agencies received an overall failing grade, and all were in the “B” and “C” range.

Above all, the scorecard has proven to be an evolving work of oversight which started off five years ago with just four grading categories. It has since grown to more than double that even after dropping off some categories which most of the agencies had mastered. And the scorecard can be expected to morph in the future to capture emerging challenges for Federal agency IT.

Here are several areas to watch for the future direction of the scorecard process, and what agencies may run up against in trying to keep their scores high.

Congressional Direction

The scorecard – which is generated by the House Government Operations Subcommittee with input from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – is usually closely followed by a public hearing at which subcommittee members including Chairman Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., offer doses of praise, criticism, and encouragement to agency CIOs on how to get better grades next time. And importantly, they also offer clues for further scorecard evolution.

The 11th edition of the scorecard issued shortly before the Christmas holiday and in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic has not yet received that public hearing. An Oversight and Reform Committee source told MeriTalk the committee plans to hold a hearing on the scorecard “early” in the 117th Congress that began this month, once the Biden administration has put some new agency leadership in place. So look for some concrete direction from members of Congress who know the issues, but don’t be surprised if the wait is measured in weeks or months.

Rep. Connolly and subcommittee ranking member Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said in prepared statements last month that they were keying in on agency cybersecurity improvements, especially in light of the Russia-backed hacking of thousands of government and private sector networks via SolarWinds Orion products.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, continued reliance on remote work, and an unprecedented and highly sophisticated cyber-attack by a foreign adversary – the importance of federal agencies’ effective use of IT is too great to ignore,” Rep. Connolly said. Reflecting authentic bipartisanship on government tech issues, Rep. Hice said he looked forward to working with Connolly on how to measure how well agencies undertake IT projects, and how those efforts work to improve citizen service.

How Grades Changed – EIS Category

The biggest mover of scores on the latest FITARA Scorecard was the debut of a new category tracking agency progress on switching telecommunications contracts from the expiring Networx contract to the $50 billion Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) contract.

The Oversight and Reform Committee chose a 50 percent migration status by March 2021 as the grading benchmark, and scores came in all over the spectrum – five agencies failed, eight received an “A” grade, and the rest ended up in between. Agencies with lower scores are not necessarily too far behind in migration, but time is running short.

According to the General Services Administration (GSA), the deadline to be 50 percent weaned away from the Networx contract and onto EIS is March of this year, followed by the 100 percent transition deadline in September 2022, before the Networx deal lapses completely in 2023. GSA offers periodic updates on agency progress here, and they match up broadly to the grading on the latest FITARA Scorecard.

One wild card to consider when tracking agency progress on EIS: size and complexity matter a lot. For instance, the Pentagon’s Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) reported last month on its EIS progress, and with subsequent updates provided to MeriTalk closer to the end of December, said it had awarded 31 out of a total 52 EIS solutions task orders. Of the remaining task orders, DISA said that 16 were in evaluation, four were awaiting industry proposals, and three were being prepared for release to industry.

The agency explained that the EIS transition is more complex and time-consuming than previous telecom service contract transitions, but nonetheless DISA Procurement Services Executive Douglas Packard characterized results to date as “extremely positive.” He added, “While it would have been easy to move quickly and simply procure the same services under EIS, warfighters deserve the best with solutions that support them well into the future.”

The bottom line: agencies with wide mission sets and numerous components face neither a short nor easy task with EIS, and their path along the transition timeline remains a work in progress. Despite all of its efforts to date, for example, the Defense Department received a “D” grade on EIS transition on the latest scorecard.

How Grades Changed – Losing the ‘Easy A’

Less significant to future agency scorecard performance but illustrative of how grading can fluctuate even when everyone’s doing well, each of the 24 CFO Act agencies tracked on the scorecard suffered at the bottom line with the Oversight and Reform Committee’s decision to sunset the long-running MEGABYTE software licensing category.

The committee removed the category this time around after 23 of the 24 agencies scored an “A” grade with it on Scorecard version 10 issued last August. That removal is obviously an indicator of success for agency IT writ large – and for the aim of the scorecard, which is to drive performance improvements – but taking away the “easy A” can also introduce more volatility in overall grades.

Down the road, another long-running scorecard grading category – progress on the Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI) – may also become a thing of the past because agencies have come close to mastering the task. On the latest version of the scorecard, 19 agencies earned “A” grades in the category, and two of the remaining five were getting close with “B” grades.

New Administration May Bring Changes

Finally, FITARA Scorecard watchers may want to keep a close eye on some of the changes that a normal transition to a new presidential administration may bring to some key scorecard categories, along with more specific IT policy changes – like an updated Presidential Management Agenda – that are hard to foresee at this early date.

Beyond the EIS, MEGABYTE, and DCOI categories, the scorecard also grades on discrete categories of: CIO authority enhancements; transparency and risk management; portfolio review; implementation of the Modernizing Government Technology (MGT) Act; cybersecurity; and whether the CIO reports to the agency head or deputy.

It’s as normal as a hot August in Washington that top agency leadership changes quickly during the early days of a new presidential administration, and over the ensuing months those changes often translate down to the CIO level.

Scorecard grading sticklers for Government Operations Chair Connolly over the past few years have included agencies that won’t have their CIOs report directly to agency heads and deputies, and agencies that won’t (or don’t believe they have authority) create their own working capital funds under the MGT Act. Just on the former category alone, we understand from Oversight and Reform Committee sources that failure to have the CIO report to the top of the agency dooms an otherwise perfect scorecard to a “low B” grade.

Those coming changes both at the top of the agency, and at the top of the IT ladder, present opportunities for some agencies to notch quick wins with internal policy changes that would show big dividends on future FITARA scorecards, and possibly leave some CIOs out of the hot seat at future hearings.

The View From Industry

Outside Federal agency IT suites, the FITARA scorecard is closely watched by the public sector tech industry to match solutions with obvious agency needs.

“It is a testament to the work of agency CIOs and their teams that for the first time in the 5 years since FITARA was introduced that there are no scores lower than C,” said David Kushner, vice president of sales at VION.

“There is still work to be done, and we look forward to working with our government customers in 2021 to improve their scores, especially in the areas of Technology Modernization and Data Center Optimization,” Kushner said.

“As citizens continue to require more from their government, it is imperative that agencies maximize the value of their IT investments and utilize data to derive more impact for citizens,” said Kevin Youngquist, vice president of U.S. Public Sector and Healthcare at Veritas. “The FITARA Scorecard exemplifies where improvements must be made with successful mission outcomes often relying on a combination of government and industry teamwork.”

“At Veritas, we work with government agencies to provide IT Analytics for unified insights of both on-premises and multi-cloud environments,” he said. “Using APTARE provides government agencies the visibility needed to identify underutilized IT resources. Agency executives can repurpose assets to achieve significant cost savings, mitigate risk, and ultimately serve citizens better. Together, we illuminate data and critical assets. This key intelligence shapes the IT roadmap toward digital transformation.”

Jeff Chancellor, principal systems engineer at Software AG Government Solutions Inc., commented that the company’s FedRAMP authorized Alfabet solution “would benefit any agency looking for improvements in several areas – namely Modernization and Transparency.” Transparency, he said, “has been a point of contention in many agencies who are uncertain about exposing their IT Portfolio areas to internal staff, as well as key external partners.”

“Modernization is significantly positioned for improvement via our connection with data streaming services to keep technology products updated with respect to their support and service lifecycles,” Chancellor continued. “Our solution eliminates hundreds of hours spent chasing down End-of-Support and End-of-ServiceLife dates from vendors that may have been acquired by larger companies throughout the last several years. This confusion is eliminated by data service providers, and Alfabet is able to seamlessly integrate with these providers.”

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.