What are FedRAMP POAMs? Plan of Actions and Milestones Explained

At its core, POAM (sometimes written as POA&M) stands for Plan of Actions and Milestones. It is an essential tool used in risk management and cybersecurity programs. It acts as a strategic roadmap that organizations use to identify, track, and monitor the resolution of vulnerabilities and non-compliance in their systems.

Sleek v2.0 public release is here

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The Anatomy of a POAM

Understanding the components of a POAM is pivotal. These components form the skeletal framework that provides depth and clarity to the document:

  • Description of Vulnerability or Non-Compliance: This provides context on the detected issue, enabling stakeholders to gauge its severity and potential impact.
  • Source Identification: This traces back to how the vulnerability or non-compliance was detected, whether through an internal audit, external assessment, or a security tool.
  • Responsible Party: This denotes the team or individual tasked with addressing the particular issue, ensuring accountability and ownership.
  • Proposed Corrective Action: A succinct overview of the measures recommended to remedy the vulnerability or non-compliance.
  • Milestones: These are specific and time-bound tasks or activities set out to rectify the identified issues. They act as tangible indicators of progress.
  • Completion Date: The projected date by which the corrective action should be implemented and the vulnerability resolved.

Why POAMs Matter to Organizations

The Case Study of Acme Corp: The Acme Corp IT department was grappling with an alarming discovery: a crucial server vulnerability had been detected during an internal audit. Given the server's central role in operations, a security breach could halt the company's day-to-day tasks. But thanks to a POAM in place, the team had a systematic roadmap to tackle the vulnerability. By detailing every action step, responsible parties, and milestones, the POAM ensured that the vulnerability was addressed timely and efficiently. Not only was the issue resolved, but Acme also managed to fortify its defenses against similar vulnerabilities in the future. This fiction but illustrative tale underscores the tangible benefits of POAMs. They are not just documents; they are actionable insights into an organization's security posture by providing:

  • Transparency: By outlining vulnerabilities and corrective actions, stakeholders remain informed about the security challenges and the strategies to overcome them.
  • Accountability: Assigning responsibilities ensures that there's no ambiguity about who is handling what, ensuring tasks are carried out diligently.
  • Progress Tracking: With milestones and completion dates in place, it becomes straightforward to monitor the headway made in resolving issues.

Different Labels, Same Idea: The Alternative Names for POAMs

It's worth noting that while the specific term "POAM" is used in the context of U.S. federal systems, the concept of tracking and managing vulnerabilities through some sort of action plan is a universal best practice in cybersecurity. Other organizations, whether in the private sector or in other nations, may have similar tools or methods, even if they don't use the exact term "POAM". Other process names include: Remediation Plans, Corrective Action Plans, Incident Response Plans, among others.

Challenges with POAMs

Like every tool, POAMs come with their set of challenges. One of the primary concerns is ensuring that POAMs remain living documents, regularly updated and reviewed. Stagnant POAMs, those not reflecting the current state of an organization's vulnerabilities, can be more detrimental than not having a POAM at all.

Critical to a Strong Cybersecurity Posture

POAMs are a foundational instrument that, when used effectively, can significantly bolster an organization's cybersecurity posture. Moreover, they are pivotal in satisfying the criteria set forth by compliance frameworks like FedRAMP, StateRAMP, and Tx-RAMP. In today’s regulatory environment, where compliance is often mandatory, having an organized and effective POAM is more than a best practice; it's a necessity.

About the author

Adam Johnson boasts 15 years in information systems, with special expertise in product marketing and management. He's always had an interest in Cybersecurity.‍ A family man at heart, Adam enjoys biking, soccer, and traveling with his wife and three kids.