The Department of Homeland Security is keeping tight-lipped about the details surrounding the resignation of its former chief information officer last month, which it says was not prompted by disagreements over authority issues.
In April, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano asking why the department CIO Richard Spires was placed on voluntary or non voluntary leave, who made the final decision regarding his leave and additional information about the current acting CIO.
In a May 13 response, the department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, Nelson Peacock, said personnel and privacy rules prohibit DHS from discussing why Spires took elective leave from the agency and later resigned May 17.
Peacock said Spires was not placed in an administrative leave status because of disagreements concerning his authority as CIO but provided no further details. Concerning acting CIO Margie Graves, Peacock said she is fully qualified to serve in her current role and confirmed that she was hired as a Transportation Security Administration employee in 2003 and was not converted from a consultant position.
In a follow-up letter to DHS this week, Thompson pressed for more details, following the department’s refusal to provide adequate responses. This time, Thompson has asked for a copy of Spires resignation letter; an explanation of why he was placed on leave and who played a role in making that decision; an explanation of who is empowered to make information technology decisions at DHS and Graves’ employment history prior to being named acting CIO.
Danny Werfel is just starting his new gig as acting IRS chief, but leaders of a Senate oversight committee are already wishing he were back in his old post as controller of the Office of Management and Budget.
Werfel “has demonstrated integrity in everything he’s done in the federal government,” Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said at a hearing today. “My hope is that he’s there for a short period of time and back where we can use him in a better way.”
“He really has a base of knowledge that very few people have.”
The committee’s chairman, Tom Carper, D-Del., quickly seconded, joking that “I approve this message.”
Werfel had been scheduled to testify at the hearing on program duplication and overlap, but instead started his new job today. As a result, Gene Dodaro, head of the Government Accountability Office, had the witness table to himself.
The bipartisan praise suggested one reason that Werfel–a career financial manager (albeit Senate-confirmed) who has worked closely with the committee on improper payment issues–was chosen to run the IRS despite never having overseen a large agency: A straight-shooter reputation with Congress in a job that will likely call for plenty of face time on Capitol Hill in the weeks to come.
But his exit from OMB adds to the exodus of senior leadership at the budget agency. Although Director Sylvia Burwell quickly won Senate confirmation last month, both the deputy director positions are vacant, as is the post of administrator at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and, of course, Werfel’s job.
Although Carper’s committee later in the day approved Brian Deese to be deputy budget director, a final vote by the Senate won’t happen until next month at the earliest. Ditto for the nomination of Howard Shelanski to head the regulatory affairs office. President Obama has so far not formally settled on any candidate for the posts of deputy management director or controller.
“Nobody’s home,” Carper said. “Sylvia’s terrific, but we’ve got to get a really great team around her.”
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Four years after President Obama created the post of chief performance officer to some fanfare, the job is now vacant, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget confirmed this week.
“OMB does not currently have a chief performance officer,” Ari Isaacman Astles said in an email to FedLine. “The responsibilities of the CPO are being handled by the OMB management team.”
Back in April 2009, Obama had tapped Jeff Zients, who became OMB’s deputy director for management, to also serve as chief performance officer. In that role, Obama said at the time, “Jeff will work to streamline processes, cut costs, and find best practices throughout our government.” But Zients quietly handled off those duties early last year to Lisa Brown, another White House staffer, when he again took over as acting OMB director. At the beginning of this March, however, Brown became general counsel at Georgetown University.
Astles didn’t say whether Brown was still serving as acting chief performance officer at the time of her departure. No word on a possible replacement, although Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel is now temporarily overseeing the management side of the house at OMB. (Zients left the deputy director’s job last month.)
Meanwhile, the Senate is moving forward with the nomination of Brian Deese to serve as deputy OMB budget director. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has scheduled a vote on Deese’s candidacy this afternoon; the Senate Budget Committee could soon follow suit after holding a confirmation hearing yesterday.
So at least one of these jobs may soon be filled.
Agencies are on the hook to publicly release more digital data in a way that protects citizen’s personal information and does not comprise government security.
One challenge, however, will be determining how that data could be combined with existing public data to identify an individual or pose other security risks to agencies, according to experts speaking at ACT-IAC’s annual Management of Change conference this week.
“The awareness is there, the concern is there, [but] the practice of it is relatively immature,” said Mike Howell, deputy program manager in the Office of the Program Manager of the Information Sharing Environment. “The policy framework around how you prevent inadvertent aggregation of personal identifiable information [and] sensitive information, it’s a known problem. It’s good that people are paying attention, but it becomes incumbent on whoever the aggregator is what they do with that information.”
Howell, whose office falls under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, highlighted the administration’s recent Open Data policy that refers to this issue as the mosaic effect. The policy memo, released this month, directs agencies to:
Consider other publicly available data –in any medium and from any source-to determine whether some combination of existing data and the data intended to be’ publicly released could allow for the identification of an individual or pose another security concern.
The challenge for many agencies, however, is they’re struggling to understand what data they have let alone what data is already in the public domain.
According to the policy, “it is the responsibility of each agency to perform the necessary analysis and comply with all applicable laws, regulations, and policies. In some cases, this assessment may affect the amount, type, form, and detail of data released by agencies.”
There’s a natural tension between releasing open data and securing it, said Donna Roy, an executive director in the Department of Homeland Security’s Information Sharing Environment Office.
Agencies have been instructed to:
- Collect or create only that information necessary for the proper performance of agency functions and has practical utility.
- Limit the collection or creation of information that identifies individuals to what is legally authorized and necessary for the proper performance of agency functions.
- Limit the sharing of information that identifies individuals or contains proprietary information to what is legally authorized.
The General Services Administration is moving forward with plans to stand up a cloud broker contract for acquiring and managing the performance of federal cloud services.
The Department of Homeland Security is one of two agencies that has committed to testing GSA’s cloud broker model in a pilot program expected to launch this fall, said GSA’s Mark Day. Speaking Monday at the annual Management of Change conference in Maryland, Day said GSA will award one contract to test the concept of a broker model and reevaluate the pilot by year’s end to determine how it could be expanded.
GSA has not yet defined all the services a cloud broker would provide, but the National Institute of Standards and Technology defines a cloud broker as “an entity that manages the use, performance and delivery of cloud services and negotiates relationships between cloud providers and cloud consumers.” Technology research firm Gartner defines cloud brokerage as a business model in which an entity adds value to one or more cloud services on behalf of one or more cloud users.
Some question whether the cloud broker model will add value or end up costing agencies more money. In a Feb. 14 letter to Rep. Doris Matsui, R-Calif., GSA’s Lisa Austin said the cloud broker model could be more effective in creating ongoing competition among cloud providers, rather than awarding single contracts for each cloud service.
“Part of the pilot is really understanding what’s the right role, [and] what’s the right process” for a cloud broker model, Day told Federal Times. ”We think we have an idea, but now we’ve got to test it.”
Day made clear what cloud brokers would not do inherently governmental functions, such as contracting. It isn’t clear to what extent brokers would negotiate services between agencies and cloud service providers, but the hope is that cloud brokers will increase vendor competition and reduce pricing and reduce the complexities of acquiring cloud services and integrating them with existing services.
Roughly 15 agencies are part of the cloud broker discussion, Day said. He would not name the second agency that has committed to testing the broker model because the agency has not announced it publicly.
The challenge for GSA has been attracting business to some of its existing federal contracts, rather than agencies launching their own contracts or using other agencies’ contracts. To garner greater use of its strategic sourcing contracts and future use of its cloud broker contract, GSA is meeting with agencies to determine their commitment to participate in market research and use the contracts, Day said. GSA can better leverage the federal government’s buying power, and vendors have an idea of what’s possible, in terms of business volume on a contract, he said.
More than half of the attendees at a big training meeting in 2011 for the General Services Administration’s acquisition arm hailed from the Washington area, but when it came time to figure out a location, officials headed to sunny Orlando instead.
As outlined in a memo released by the GSA’s Inspector General this week, a review found that Federal Acquisition Service officials settled on a contract proposal for conference planning and training that came to nearly a quarter million dollars, while the next highest vendor proposed just $79,784.
Despite the price, the IG found that officials essentially steered the conference to the Disney Institute by cutting and pasting from the request for quotation of a GSA leadership conference held months earlier by the FAS office in Atlanta. Three other vendors were rated poor and disqualified.
“This indicates that the competition may have been restricted since the requirements in the work statement could not be meet by other potential vendors,” James P. Hayes, deputy assistant IG, concluded in a May 15 memo to FAS Commissioner Thomas A. Sharpe, Jr., who was not in charge of FAS at the time.
Overall, the Florida conference conference cost $164,000, while 58-percent of the 155 attendees came from the Washington area, the IG found.
In am email, Dan Cruz, a spokesman for GSA, said the activity took place in 2011 and “would not be tolerated today.”
He said Acting GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini, who also was not with GSA at the time, has enacted reforms leading to greater oversight of travel, conference spending and related procurement activities.
“Over the past year, GSA has cancelled more than 50 conferences,” Cruz said. “These internal reforms, including cuts in travel and conference spending, have led to $73 million in savings.”
Tangherlini was named head of GSA after the former chief, Martha Johnson, resigned amid embarrassing disclosures of lavish, taxpayer-funded conferences, including a now infamous gathering in Las Vegas that cost more than $800,000 and featured a red carpet party and a mind reader.
President Obama’s choice for deputy budget director spent a fair amount of time discussing the need for tighter management during a confirmation hearing today.
During a period of fiscal challenges, a key focus “has got to be making our government more efficient and more effective,” Brian Deese told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. President Obama nominated Deese, previously a top White House economic aide, last month for the post of deputy budget director at the Office of Management and Budget. The person holding that job “plays an important role in setting those (management side) priorities and also in making sure that we as a team at OMB would be well-positioned to execute on those,” he said.
In replies to written questions released at the hearing, Deese added that “greater focus on evidence in budgeting” will ensure effective government spending. If confirmed, Deese said he would work closely with OMB’s deputy director for management. That post has been vacant since Jeff Zients left last month; Obama has not yet named a replacement.
Deese served as deputy director of the National Economic Council from January 2011 until March; since then, he has been at OMB as a counselor to the director. If confirmed, he would replace Heather Higginbottom, who left in February for a job at the State Department.
No significant opposition has emerged so far to his nomination. At today’s hearing, committee Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., praised Deese as someone who understands the importance of innovation, both in saving money and in delivering better public services. Besides Carper, only Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., attended. A spokesman for the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, did not reply to voicemails asking the reason for his boss’s absence.
The Senate Budget Committee, which also has jurisdiction over Deese’s nomination, plans its own confirmation hearing later this month, a spokeswoman said.
Members of the U.S. Postal Service’s board of governors risked losing their jobs if the agency persevered with ending Saturday mail delivery following passage of a final fiscal 2013 spending bill.
That was the warning delivered by an outside law firm April 5–four days before the board pulled the plug on the plan.
Proceeding with five-day mail delivery “would entail a number of risks,” Jeffrey Bucholtz, a partner with King & Spalding, wrote in a 17-page opinion prepared for the Postal Service’s legal department. “First, violating a federal law would likely supply cause for the President to remove the Governors.”
While the Supreme Court has never precisely defined the grounds for removal, Bucholtz continued, “it has said that the good-cause standard enables the President to ensure that an independent officer ‘is competently performing his or her statutory responsibilities in a manner that comports with’ applicable legislation.”
The odds of successfully moving ahead with five-day delivery faced other possible roadblocks, he added, including a legal challenge from the comptroller general and other lawsuits that could spring up around the country. Although judges could rule either way on such cases, he said, “the Postal Service would have to run the table and win every case in every court.”
The memo, marked “PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL,” casts new context on the board’s about-face on five-day delivery. In last month’s statement announcing that it was halting implementation of the new schedule, the panel, chaired by Mickey Barnett, a lawyer and former New Mexico state senator, didn’t reference the removal threat. Whether that factored into its decision is unclear.
A seat on the board carries real power over the operations of an enterprise that affects virtually every American. But the pay is $30,000 annually plus expenses, a relatively modest amount by Washington standards for what in recent years has become an increasingly time-consuming job.
In a brief interview Friday, Barnett said the removal risk had no effect on his stance. “My term’s up at the end of December,” Barnett said following the board’s public meeting on release of the Postal Service’s second quarter financial results. Speaking on behalf of the board, Postal Service spokesman Dave Partenheimer had previously pointed back to last month’s statement. There, the board said that Congress left it no choice but to drop the plan for now and that it didn’t want to unduly burden postal customers with “ongoing uncertainties.”
The memo was one of two that Bucholtz prepared on the five-day delivery question at a cost to the Postal Service of about $51,000. The central issue was whether a decades-old congressional ban on curtailing mail delivery days still applied under the stop-gap spending measures known as continuing resolutions.
Under the CR that was in place in February when the Postal Service announced plans to end Saturday mail service with projected savings of $2 billion per year, Bucholtz had opined in a Feb. 28 memo that the agency could legally proceed. It was a whole different story under the full-year CR signed in late March. That measure did incorporate the ban, he said in the April 5 memo. As an independent agency, Bucholtz said, “the Postal Service should tread carefully in the highly controversial area of potential open disobedience of a federal statute.”
“Without support from Congress or the President, efforts to avoid compliance with enacted law are not likely to succeed.”
Of course, the Postal Service, citing a lack of money, has twice flouted a separate legal requirement that it pay about $5.5 billion annually into a fund for future retiree health care. Those defaults have generated little concern from politicians. At an April 17 congressional hearing, they also helped prompt the following frank exchange between Barnett and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, according to a transcript.
Issa: “You obey a law that costs you $2 billion and you ignore a law that says you owe us $5.5 billion a year and you’ve done it for two years. Why would you pick one law to obey, that cost — you know, that you choose to obey, that actually costs you $2 billion? Where’s the fiduciary balance there? If you’re going to break a law, why is that the law that you broke? Or didn’t break?”
Barnett: “Mr. Chairman, thanks for that question, because I, we do have a reason. The board has discussed it extensively. The real problem with the going from six to five-day, knowing it will be challenged in court and not knowing what the result would be, is the tens of thousand dollars that many, many businesses would have to implement in software updates and changes in their procedures. It also involves approximately 23,000 employees that would be directly affected . . .”
[Post updated Friday, May 10, with Barnett comments]
Richard Spires has resigned from his post as chief information officer at the Department of Homeland Security, an agency official confirmed Tuesday.
Spires has been on elected leave since March 15, according to the DHS official. But the nature of his resignation is unclear. Margie Graves, the departnment’s deputy CIO, will continue serving as acting CIO.
DHS has yet to respond to earlier requests from Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, concerning Spires’ extended leave from the agency. Specifically, Thompson asked why Spires was placed on voluntary or non voluntary leave, and who made the final decision regarding his leave. Responses were due May 6.