Federal Times Blogs

VA cancels critical contract for electronic health record

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The Veterans Affairs Department has canceled a $102.6 million contract to manage a critical portion of its future integrated electronic health record (iEHR) system with the Defense Department.

The contract was awarded on Jan. 13 to Fairfax, Va.-based ASM Research Inc. to manage a portion of the iEHR, called the enterprise service bus, which will allow various components of the future system to communicate with each other and with VA and DoD health information stored in data centers. The contract was awarded under VA’s $12 billion Transformation Twenty-One Total Technology, or T4, program.

VA Spokeswoman Jo Schuda confirmed that the contract was canceled on Feb. 28 but did not provide further details about what prompted the decision. It also isn’t clear how this will impact development of the new system.

In an interview with Federal Times this month, VA Chief Information Officer Roger Baker said the enterprise service bus is “the heart of the iEHR.” “Everything will talk to it or through it.”

Baker said VA and DoD are still finalizing an estimated four- to five-year development plan for the iEHR. Development of the iEHR is tied to the larger Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record that will enable better sharing of veterans’ health and benefits data, but the iEHR is a separate program that requires its own oversight, Baker said.

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Rep. Moran: Too many feds protecting their comfort zones

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Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., is usually numbered among the federal workforce’s best friends on Capitol Hill. But this morning, he evidently decided it was time for a little tough love.

When feds get a new assignment, they “hire a consultant,” Moran told participants at a Partnership for Public Service event. “They don’t take it on themselves.”

“We’ve got too many people, even in managerial positions, who are protecting their comfort zone,” he continued.  “I’m really discouraged because these are good people that can do far more than they are attempting  to accomplish. They’re  worth more than they really give themselves credit for.”

“But when something new is introduced, they look somewhere else.”

The occasion was the Partnership’s official release of a report on the Senior Executive Service. In attendance at the non-partisan organization’s downtown D.C. offices were federal employees, reporters and—yes—consultants. The report’s main finding–that the SES has not lived to Congress’s original vision of a mobile cadre of top civil servants–was one that Moran robustly endorsed.

“We need people who are looking for new challenges, who know what needs to be done, who are not satisfied with what a federal agency is achieving today,”  he said.  Not long after, Moran was off, with plans to address a noontime National Treasury Employees Union rally on his schedule.


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NIST revises security and privacy standards for federal systems

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The National Institute of Standards and Technology on Tuesday released proposed revisions to its requirements that govern how agencies secure their federal information systems.

Proposed changes to Special Publication 800-53, Revision 4, address new challenges that agencies face, including insider threats, supply chain risk, mobile and cloud computing technologies, and other cybersecurity issues and challenges, NIST said in a news release.

“The changes we propose in Revision 4 are directly linked to the current state of the threat space — the capabilities, intentions and targeting activities of adversaries — and analysis of attack data over time,” NIST fellow Ron Ross said in a statement.

“Many organizations are concerned about advanced persistent threats, so we added new controls that will allow organizations to use different strategies to combat those types of threats,” Ross said.

The proposed revisions add new security controls, or descriptions of what agencies must do to properly manage an information system, clarify security control requirements and enhance others.

Once approved, the changes will be used by the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) to asses the security of cloud computing service providers. The administration plans to begin certifying cloud computing solutions under the mandatory security assessment program in June.

The public comment period for NIST’s revisions is from Feb. 28 to April 6, and the final document is expected to be released in July, after FedRAMP reviews begin.

It isn’t clear how long cloud vendors will have to adjust to the changes. And those details were not included in a new charter that defines the role of FedRAMP’s Joint Authorization Board, composed of chief information officers at the General Services Administration and Homeland Security and Defense departments.

The board will prioritize which cloud vendors will be first to undergo FedRAMP reviews, define security authorization requirements for vendors and provide the criteria for approving independent assessors to review the security of cloud solutions. The board is required to meet formally at least twice a year and appoint technical representatives that meet on a monthly basis.

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LightSquared CEO resigns

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LightSquared Chief Executive Officer Sanjiv Ahuja has resigned, the company announced Tuesday.

The news comes two weeks after the Federal Communications Commission rejected plans by the wireless broadband firm to build a 4G network on spectrum adjacent to Global Positioning System signals. Tests by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and others warned of the harm LightSquared’s proposed network would pose to GPS services critical for first responders, the airline industry and others.

“During my tenure at LightSquared, we all worked tirelessly to create the nation’s first open wireless broadband network and provide consumers with a new wireless broadband experience,” Ahuja said in a statement. “That work continues and I wish the company and its fine management team well as they work to achieve this important goal.”

Ahuja will continue serving as chairman of the board. Doug Smith, chief network officer, and Marc Montagner, chief financial officer, will serve as interim co-chief operating officers, “while the company completes the search for the new CEO,” according to a news release.

Philip Falcone, CEO and chief information officer of hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners, was appointed to the company’s board of directors. Falcone has invested about $3 billion in the LightSquared project and said the company will take an “aggressive approach” to ensure there is enough finances to work through its issues.

Falcone said LightSquared will continue its vision to provide a 4G wireless alternative by working with national security, aviation and the GPS communities

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Army considers Bring-Your-Own-Device plan

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The Army’s deputy chief information officer is proposing a new plan that would expand the Army’s mobility strategy beyond the BlackBerry and allow users to do government work on their personal devices.

If the Army works aggressively through partnerships with the National Security Agency and industry, it could be ready to release a request for proposal for mobile technology within the next 12 months, said Army deputy CIO Mike Krieger, at a mobility event last week. The contract would provide a large number of soldiers, contractors and civilians with zero client mobile devices, or smartphones that have no operating systems or software and only serve as a connector between the user and applications running in the data center.

“Data that is traditionally stored on the device would be running in a data center,” Krieger said. The technology would allow people to use their own devices for personal and government business.

Currently, BlackBerry is the “primary game in town” because it meets Defense Department security requirements, which include encryption standards and the ability to verify users with a Common Access Card, Krieger said. Zero client technology would help the Army more easily meet security requirements.

The Army’s ongoing transition to enterprise email services through the Defense Information Systems Agency has improved the Army’s oversight of its mobile devices, Krieger said. Before moving to DISA provided enterprise email, Krieger said many functions on the BlackBerry didn’t work because the software was not configured properly.

“Now, I know how many I have, and I can do enterprise policies, and I have better security,” he said.

The Army halted its migration to enterprise email in December because of a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act that temporarily withheld funding for the program, pending a detailed review.

Krieger said he expects the Army will resume migration on or about March 17.

“Email is really the first step in going DoD enterprise services,” he said. “It has little to do with email.”


New guidance details best practices for cloud contracting

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Guidance released by the Chief Information Officers Council last week calls on agencies to improve collaboration among CIOs, privacy and contracting officers and other stakeholders when procuring cloud services.

The document, called “Creating Effective Cloud Computing Contracts for the Federal Government” outlines 10 areas where agencies can improve their internal collaborations before selecting a cloud provider.

Agencies should consider input from the CIO, general counsel, privacy and procurement offices when choosing the appropriate cloud service and how it will be provided.

“Federal agencies must ensure cloud environments are compliant with all existing laws and regulations when they move IT services to the cloud,” according to the document.

Other areas for improved collaboration:

- Defining security requirements for cloud vendors and ensuring a robust continuous monitoring program is in place.

- Ensuring that all data stored in the cloud is available under the Freedom of Information Act.

- Creating service level agreements that define performance requirements for vendors and how they will be measured.

Agencies are encouraged to include provisions in their cloud contracts that define penalties if a vendor does not meet a service level agreement. To incentivize vendors to meet these agreements, agencies should use a monetary consequence or another penalty if vendors’ services fall short of agencies’ expectations.

The guide, avialable at cio.gov, was a joint effort among the CIO and Chief Acquisition Officers councils and the Federal Cloud Compliance Committee.

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Will Afghan War be over before Defense has a plan to deploy civilians?

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Julia Schoenfeld looks at the results after firing an M9 pistol during Civilian Expeditionary Workforce training at Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations at Camp Atterbury, Ind., in February 2010. (Army)

Three years ago, the Defense Department set up a Civilian Expeditionary Workforce policy to help manage how it deploys civilians to war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Government Accountability Office said today that the CEW concept is still a long way from what the Pentagon envisioned.

CEW was meant to create a cadre of Defense civilians with crucial skills that are willing, ready and trained to go to war and help support combat troops — quickly. CEW has had some success, GAO said, most notably by creating a database of thousands of resumes from volunteers and filling 10 percent to 15 percent of the 2,929 Defense civilians now in Afghanistan.

But it hasn’t been fully implemented yet, GAO said. Defense components haven’t identified and designated the numbers and types of positions that will make up the emergency-essential, non-combat essential and capability-based volunteer segments of CEW. That’s important because, for example, emergency-essential employees directly support combat operations or make sure combat-essential systems are available (such as, fix helicopters or weapons).

Why haven’t Defense components taken that crucial step? Because the Office of the Secretary of Defense hasn’t issued critical guidance for making those decisions, GAO said. OSD swears it will get around to it one of these days, once it finalizes “key assumptions regarding the size and composition of the CEW.” The Pentagon wasn’t able to tell GAO when the guidance will be issued.

But in the meantime, the Iraq War is over, and the Obama administration plans to pull combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. So by the time those key assumptions are finalized, that critical guidance is issued, and those civilians are identified and designated … will there even be a war requiring a CEW?

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Amid scrutiny of her travel, Postal Regulatory Commission chief bound for Switzerland

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Barely two weeks after a prominent senator questioned her travel activities, Postal Regulatory Commission Chairman Ruth Goldway is unapologetically heading overseas.

“I know that travel raises questions,” Goldway said in a Friday interview two days before embarking on a 13-day trip to Switzerland,  “but I really feel that I’m doing an honest job and the right thing for the Postal Regulatory Commission and the country.”

After leaving on a flight from Washington this Sunday, Goldway will spend most of the next two weeks in the Swiss capital of Bern, according to an itinerary provided by the commission.  The first leg, running from Monday through Friday, will be for a gathering of the Universal Postal Union, an international coordinating body.  The second leg—which includes a side trip to Geneva—encompasses a meeting of women leaders titled “Sister Republics: Building Bridges—An Action Plan for Women’s Leadership,” according to the itinerary. That meeting is sponsored by the State Department, meaning that the PRC isn’t paying for it, a commission spokeswoman said today. Goldway is scheduled to speak during one session before returning to Washington on March 9, the itinerary indicates.

In the interview, Goldway described the Universal Postal Union meeting as directly related to the commission’s work.  On the agenda, for example, are possible changes worth tens of millions of dollars in added reimbursements to the financially ailing U.S. Postal Service for handling mail from other countries once it arrives in the United States, she said. Her participation in the “Sister Republics” meeting follows an invitation from the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland, Donald Beyer, who wrote in November that “we would be honored to have you share your experiences with us.”

But the trip comes as Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., is scrutinizing Goldway’s travel activities since she became chairman in August 2009. Carper, who heads the Senate subcommittee that oversees the PRC and the Postal Service, launched the review Feb. 8 after Federal Times and The Washington Post reported that the pace of Goldway’s travel was running above that of Dan Blair, who chaired the commission before her, even as the agency’s workload has grown amidst the Postal Service’s worsening financial crisis.

As of earlier this month, Goldway had taken 34 trips at a total cost of almost $71,000, including 11 overseas destinations, records showed. During a slightly longer tenure as chairman, Blair took 25 trips worth about $59,000.

Goldway, who publicly posted her travel records on the commission’s web site this week after giving them to Carper’s office, has defended her travel as relevant to her work and beneficial to the Postal Service and the mailing public.

In a Friday statement, however, Carper spokeswoman Emily Spain questioned Goldway’s priorities. The commission, which is funded through postal revenues, is currently reviewing the Postal Service’s plan to abandon overnight delivery of first-class mail as part of an aggressive cost-cutting agenda to close or consolidate more than 220 processing plants. While USPS officials say they want to proceed as soon as a self-imposed moratorium on plant closings expires in mid-May, the PRC won’t issue a legally required advisory opinion until late July at the earliest, according to public documents.

“Embarking on travel that does not appear to be closely related to the role the Postal Regulatory Commission has been given in addressing the Postal Service’s dire financial situation would appear ill-advised at this critical juncture,” Spain said.

Goldway responded that she and Carper would have to “respectfully disagree,” adding that she is continually engaged in PRC business while traveling. Before issuing the advisory opinion, the commission has to follow the Administrative Procedure Act, she said. Among other requirements, that means hearing from 13 witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages of documents. While it’s “unfortunate” that the timetable is longer than what the Postal Service wants, Goldway said, “in terms of the law, we’re not in a position to do anything different from what we’ve done.”

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Lawmakers blast proposed mail plant closings, but what next?

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Members of Congress were quick to weigh in on the U.S. Postal Service’s downsizing plans Thursday. And for the most part, they were not happy.

“This plan makes no sense at all and should be abandoned,” argued Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, where a mail processing plant is slated to close.

Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is “barreling ahead to implement drastic cost-cutting measures” before regulators give their views, objected Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, which would lose two of its three plants to those measures.

The Postal Service “should focus on common sense solutions that improve its fiscal solvency” instead of putting eight Ohio facilities out of business, said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

The fallout presumably came as no surprise to Donahoe. Within the next 18 months, the Postal Service wants to close or consolidate more than 220 processing plants at a cost of 35,000 jobs, most of them with benefits and relatively decent pay. At least in the agency’s recent history, this is unprecedented. Who would be happy?

The closest thing to a thumbs-up may have come from Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Dennis Ross, R-Fla., and Justin Amash, R-Mich.

“Rightsizing is essential to solving the Postal Service’s financial crisis,” the three said in a joint statement. “If USPS leadership actually goes through with a realignment, instead of caving to political pressure again, it will be an acknowledgment that no budget gimmick is going to restore the Postal Service to solvency. Keeping your head in the sand and hoping for a taxpayer bailout is simply irresponsible.”

If the preponderance of congressional boos was predictable, the more intriguing question is what happens next. The Postal Service has agreed to hold off on any closings until mid-May. Lieberman now wants it to wait until the Postal Regulatory Commission delivers a legally required advisory opinion on proposed changes to first-class mail delivery standards linked to the downsizing. The four-member commission has not said exactly when that opinion is coming, but it won’t be before late July at the earliest.

At the same time, the Postal Service’s financial woes are mounting. Perhaps not coincidentally, the mail carrier released an updated forecast last week that predicted tens of billions of dollars in new losses during the next few years if nothing changes.   The plant closings announced Thursday are part of a much larger stop-the-bleeding strategy that USPS leaders say must be accepted whole if the agency is to start making money again. But lawmakers generally have no stomach for inflicting pain on constituents, particularly in an election year.  With passage of the 1971 Postal Reorganization Act, Congress decided that the Postal Service should ultimately become a self-supporting entity. More than 40 years later, that decision could be in line for its biggest test.

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U.S. Postal Service releases processing plant closure list

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Today brings bad news for thousands of U.S. Postal Service workers; just out is a list of more than 220 mail processing plants slated for closure or consolidation. Federal Times will have an updated story on its web site shortly, but in the meantime, here is a link to the list. According to USPS officials, the downsizing will eliminate about 30,000 career positions and 5,000 non-career jobs, with closings to start as early as May and to wrap up by next year.