Federal Computer Week
By Derek B. Johnson
September 13, 2018
Congress will soon decide whether to add more dollars to the Technology Modernization Fund next year, but the board in charge of making awards has learned plenty of lessons in its first year of operations.
At a Sept. 13 luncheon hosted by AFFIRM, members of the board reflected on their first year of operations and agencies alterations to their proposals to modernization. They also discussed how the board's dealings with federal agencies and Congress on the first set of awards has impacted future rounds of consideration.
Alan Thomas, a TMF board member and commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration, said one of the biggest lessons he tried to impart to agencies after the first round of proposals came in was "don't wait to tell us the good stuff."
"Right away, get to the impact of your project, what's the outcome?" Thomas said. "It's always amazing to me how people will write two to three pages down … and at the last paragraph they've got the sentence buried in there, the 'Aha!' Don't make the board search hard for that stuff, put it right up front."
The board announced the first round of awards in June, doling out $45 million to the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Housing and Urban Development. Each project -- a customer experience portal, email cloud migration and mainframe application migration respectively -- was picked in part to serve as a model for other government agencies.
Elizabeth Cain, executive director of the TMF board, said that with a limited amount of money, the board considers not just whether a project will improve mission delivery or contain the right details for paying back award funds, but also whether the agency has demonstrated that it can't fund the project through other means.
"We definitely want to make sure when people come [with pitch proposals] that this is the best solution for funding their project," Cain said. "We want to know what other avenues they've investigated."
Maria Roat, another board member and CIO for the Small Business Administration, said the board has "sent some proposals back because we felt the agencies could self-fund what they were requesting."
While the TMF has broad bipartisan support in Congress, funding for next year has been thrown into jeopardy as lawmakers complained that the board and the Office of Management and Budget were not providing enough transparency around how projects are selected and how the board operates. In public and in private, board members have expressed confidence that OMB and Federal CIO Suzette Kent are actively addressing those concerns.
"In terms of Suzette's [communications] on the Hill, she's gone up and told them just about anything they want to know about the fund, how it's operating, what we're doing, what we're focused on," said Thomas. "In my estimation, we've done all we could in that area without launching every board member out to talk to every individual member [of Congress]."
Thomas also said that the board "did not take into account whether or not we were going to get another tranche of money" next year and that members are solely focused on doling out the remaining $55 million still on hand to the most deserving agencies.
Spokespersons for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees told FCW that lawmakers are still negotiating a final agreement on the General Government Appropriations bill that houses the TMF. A staffer on the Senate side said it will likely take at least a few more days to reach an agreement.
The board has also faced pushback from agencies on what they perceive as overly restrictive rules around repayment. Members of Congress have stressed that the repayment plan is critical to the long-term success of TMF, with Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) saying that the money "is not a slush fund" and that agencies must use savings to help seed future modernization efforts.
At a Sept. 13 roundtable on technology modernization hosted by FCW, one senior IT leader in a cabinet-level agency said his chief financial officer was strongly opposed to the use of TMF funds because of the aggressive payback schedule. The worry is that if savings from IT modernization fail to materialize, the money to pay back the central fund will have to come from program budgets. Many other CIOs at the event (which was on-the-record but not for attribution) cited this as a key flaw in the current TMF structure.
That dynamic could explain why the board has not seen as many agencies submitting proposals as initially expected.
"I think when TMF fund awards were announced, we all expected a barrage of proposals coming in, and we've gotten a lot of proposals, but I've been surprised at how many agencies did not apply," said Mark Kneidinger, a member of the board and deputy director for the National Risk Management Center at the Department of Homeland Security.
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