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Is the White House ready to take up classification reform?

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The Public Interest Declassification Board meets publicly tomorrow amid anticipation that the Obama administration may at last take up the panel’s recommendations for modernizing the national security classification system.

Those 14 recommendations are now almost a year old; the first was for the White House to name a steering committee to guide implementation of the other 13. “All indications are” that the administration is now going to appoint a committee along those lines,  John Powers, a staff member for the declassification board, said in a phone interview today.

A spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council could not be reached for comment.

The board issued the recommendations last December in response to a 2009 charge from President Obama for a “more fundamental transformation” of the classification system, whose roots date back to World War Two.

Among its suggested changes, the advisory panel urged compressing the current three-tier system to two; requiring automatic declassification  of records with short-lived sensitivity; and providing “safe harbor” to classifying officials who decide that something doesn’t warrant a secrecy stamp. Among the other participants in tomorrow’s meeting–to be held at the National Archives in Washington–will be Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who has introduced a bill incorporating some of the board’s ideas.

Since last year, the stresses on the status quo have grown starkly visible, largely because of the disclosures of classified information from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Those in turn have prompted equally unprecedented–albeit authorized–releases by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and other parts of the intelligence community, ostensibly in the interest of setting the record straight.

“The events of the last year have given even greater urgency to the topic of classification reform,” Steven Aftergood, a secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, said in a separate interview. Whether the board’s recipe for change is the right one is a separate question, Aftergood said, but there’s little disagreement that both classification and declassification practices “are ripe for reconsideration.”

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A background checker’s checkered past

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Ramon Davila is one name in a growing list.

He’s among the nearly two dozen federal background check investigators to face criminal charges in recent years for falsifying his work on investigations performed on contractors and employees seeking government clearances.

But more than year after charging Davila, the Justice Department only just learned that he had a troubling past that went unnoticed during his own background investigation.

It turns out, officials at another federal law enforcement agency decided nearly a decade ago to keep out of his personnel folder serious misconduct findings against Davila stemming from his years as a senior special agent with the Customs Service, records show. In return, Davila agreed to retire.

You can read the story of how Davila’s case fits into the growing backlog of federal background investigator falsification cases here. But for a closer, firsthand look at the misconduct findings against him and how such a settlement deal could have come about in the first place, check out the federal court filing.

Is this sort of exit deal in federal agencies unusual? Or more common than we think?

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When contract talks get heated, who’s in charge?

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Time and time again, big contractors went over the heads of General Service Administration contracting officers who were trying to negotiate good prices for the government.

But when it came time to choose, GSA supervisors sided with the contractors.

That’s the conclusion of recent GSA Office of Inspector report that raises troubling questions about the enormous pressure contracting officers can come under from contractors with close ties to managers and even members of Congress.

While GSA says it’s got new management and won’t tolerate such interference nowadays, the bigger questions are whether this sort of thing happens elsewhere, not just in GSA but in other agencies? Do lawmakers get involved? And when negotiations get heated, are contracting officers fully in charge or do contractors have outsized influence?

If there’s more to this story, let me know at jmcelhatton@federaltimes.com or (703) 750-8659.

UPDATE: House committee to vote on IT reform bill

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The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will vote on legislation Wednesday to overhaul how agencies buy and manage information technology.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Act on Monday after months of circulating the draft bill to industry groups for feedback.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., has expressed general support for the bill, which has since undergone revisions to address concerns voiced by industry and others. (Click here to view the revisions)

Under Issa’s new plan:

- CIOs at 16 major civilian agencies, including Veterans Affairs and Agriculture department, must be presidential appointees or designees and report directly to the head of their agency. Today, most CIOs at large agencies are political appointees but not all of them report to the head of their agencies.

- The Government Accountability Office would review the effectiveness of the CIO Council, an interagency forum charged with improving federal IT practices. The council must also submit annual reports to Congress on its progress.

- CIOs would track and report the costs and savings under the administration’s data center consolidation initiative.

- The Office of Management and Budget would house a CollaborationCenter, aimed at assisting agencies with challenging IT projects. In the previous draft, agencies would have been required to consult with experts at a so-called commodity IT center for contracts exceeding $50 million. Use of newly created acquisition centers of excellence would be optional.

- OMB must publish the status of 80 percent of the government’s $80 billion IT portfolio on the Dashboard, and OMB must ensure data is current and accurate. Today, only 50 percent of the IT budget is publicly available on the Dashboard.

- CIOs would have greater flexibility to fund cloud projects through cloud service working capital funds at their agencies.

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The federal government–relevant, after all?

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Hurricane Sandy is nowhere near done pummeling the D.C. area tonight, but FedLine can’t help noticing how the storm has already showered attention on the federal government’s role in anticipating and responding to disasters.

Last Friday, for example, The New York Times ran a front-page article on how delays in development of the next generation of weather satellites could jeopardize future forecasting. That risk would not have come as news to Federal Times readers, but the mainstream media had previously paid little attention to the issue.

Since then, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has had to fend off questions over whether he wants to cut funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And at least one network newscast this evening carried a feature story on the Coast Guard’s rescue earlier in the day of 14 crew members from a replica of the H.M.S. Bounty that foundered off the coast of North Carolina.

This is not to say that Washington does everything well (as the Times story points out, mismanagement has been one factor in throwing the weather satellite program off track), or that it’s unreasonable to ask whether some missions can be carried out differently or more efficiently. But whether you think the federal government’s size is too big, too small or just right, there is no denying that we currently expect it to play a very large role in situations like this. And if it doesn’t take that responsibility, it is reasonable to ask: Who will?

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Defense official to lead federal spending oversight board

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The President will nominate the Defense Department’s procurement policy director to lead a board that promotes transparency in government spending, the White House announced last week.

Richard Ginman, who became director of defense procurement and acquisition policy (DPAP) last June, will be asked to chair the  Government Accountability and Transparency (GAT) Board. The 11-member panel — made up of agency inspectors general, agency chief financial officers and a senior Office of Management and Budget official — is mirrored after a board that oversaw efforts to root out waste, fraud and abuse in stimulus spending. The GAT Board is focused on improving transparency and oversight in all federal spending.

Former chairman Earl Devaney, who also chaired the board that oversaw stimulus spending, retired from the GAT Board and from his job as Interior Department inspector general at the end of 2011.

Prior to becoming the DPAP director, Ginman served as principal deputy director of DPAP from 2008 to 2011.  Ginman worked for General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems between 2003  and 2006. Ginman, a retired Navy rear admiral, was also the Navy’s deputy for acquisition and business management and the deputy commander for contracts with the Naval Sea Systems Command.

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Senator MacCaskill’s grandsons ham it up for the camera.

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Spring Break fever was in the air today on Capitol Hill. Legislators have officially fled Washington D.C. and there will be no hearings until April 16th.

But before the final votes ensued, the Senate subcommittee on contracting oversight held a hearing where Senators McCaskill, Portman and Tester grilled witnesses from the Army, The Office of Personnel and Management and The Department of Homeland Security over contractor spending.

Meanwhile, Chairwoman McCaskill’s grandsons were in attendance. My guess is they are on their own Spring Break. They sat graciously through the hearing; only occasionally trying sneak into my shot. I’m sure they were absolutely enthralled with the subject of Contractors: How Much Are They Costing the Government.

When Grandma adjourned the hearing she let the boys smack the gavel to officially call the hearing to a close – then they really spotted me. And as kids do, they hammed it up for the camera. So, cute.

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Senator McCaskill speaks with OPM Chief Operating Officer, Chuck Grimes, while her grandchildren ham it up for the camera, March 29, 2012.

Missing from budget request: Agency performance info

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Last February, the Obama administration used its fiscal 2011 budget request to roll out more than 120 “high-priority performance goals” for federal agencies to meet.

Twelve months later, how are all those agencies doing?

You won’t find out from the White House’s FY12 request.

“Significant progress has been made on some priority goals, while weaknesses have been identified and are being addressed in others,” the document says. It then cites a couple of the cheerier examples—such as the Energy Department’s weatherizing 295,000 homes—but with no context and few details. The agency-by-agency list of goals posted on the White House web site doesn’t reflect the fact that some objectives—such as those for NASA–have changed since last year.

The updated performance info was left out of the latest budget request because the information will be posted online, Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Moira Mack said in an email.

That point could be another couple of months away, however.

Although OMB has been tracking agencies’ progress on performance.gov since last summer, access to that password-protected web site is generally restricted to federal employees. In September, federal Chief Performance Officer Jeffrey Zients predicted that it would open to the public later that fall. That step is now expected by this summer, Mack said.  The administration plans to make only “portions” of the site available to Congress and the public, according to the budget request.

That’s because performance.gov contains “sensitive information”  Mack said. OMB is also making changes based on feedback from stakeholders and to meet the requirements of recently passed Government Performance and Results Modernization Act, she said.

Meanwhile,  for a White House that promised unprecedented transparency, its performance management system continues to look exceedingly opaque.

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Feds, industry talk cyber, healthcare and procurement

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I’ve heard several remedies in the past few days for curing government’s acquisition woes.

The latest: turn the tables and create an industry scorecard for government’s past performance on acquisitions. At least that’s what one fed proposed during the Executive Leadership Council CXO Roundtable event on Tuesday.

The candid discussion among nearly 500 feds and industry covered healthcare, cybersecurity and consolidation issues facing government.

Here are some of the results from a poll conducted at the event:

- 53 percent think the implementation of meaningful use requirements (financial incentives and rewards for meaningful use of certified electronic health records) will increasingly challenge healthcare over the next several years.

- 53 percent said that to a very large extent extreme oversight causes a culture of fear that stifles innovation and risk taking in favor of compliance and cost, preventing agencies from taking advantage of new business models.

- 37 percent said a strained acquisition workforce is the major acquisition challenge blocking initiatives that are important to the organization’s success.


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Bulk of BTA workforce comes from contractors

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Almost two-thirds of the workforce at the Business Transformation Agency, a Pentagon shop slated for the chopping block, is made up of contract employees, according to figures obtained by Federal Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

Of 1,124 workers, 725 are contractors, 375 are civilian and 24 are military personnel, the figures show. In announcing his decision to close BTA within the next year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that the agency employed “approximately 360 people.” Gates was apparently referring only to government civilian employees.

Federal Times filed the FOIA request after repeated attempts to obtain the workforce information from Gates’ office went unanswered. So far, no response from a Pentagon spokeswoman this afternoon on the contractor ratio.

Although BTA was created several years ago to modernize DoD’s business practices, Gates said at the Aug. 9 news conference that its focus had shifted more “to day-to-day oversight of individual acquisition programs, a function that can be performed by a number of other organizations.”

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