What is FISMA Compliance?

The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) is a law requiring federal agencies to develop, execute, and maintain an information security program to protect any sensitive data they handle. It was passed by the US Congress in 2002.

The foundation of FISMA compliance is data security guidelines provided by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST is considered the authoritative body for creating, maintaining, and updating security standards for government agencies.

As FISMA’s underlying foundation, NIST:

  • Sets the minimum security requirements for establishing information security solutions and protocols.
  • Provides recommendations for the types of security systems that agencies within the federal government can implement as well as approved third-party vendors.
  • Standardizes risk assessment and auditing practices based on the severity of agency security risk levels.
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Why Is FISMA Compliance Important?

FISMA compliance is important foremost because FISMA is the law. Federal agencies must adopt certain cybersecurity standards, which therefore means that businesses providing technology to those agencies must achieve compliance with those expectations. It’s not a negotiable thing.

More broadly, FISMA compliance drives greater cybersecurity and protection for government information, whether that be sensitive data, military information or U.S. trade secrets.

Furthermore, the continuous monitoring requirement under FISMA provides federal agencies with the insight they need to eliminate risk through effective configuration management, access management and incident response protocols.

Those businesses in the private sector that work with federal agencies can benefit from FISMA compliance as well. By meeting FISMA compliance requirements these companies can foster a prosperous relationship and continued lucrative government contracts.

FISMA Requirements at a Glance

FISMA aims to assure that government agencies and their contractors implement an effective risk management program, as well as security protocols that prevent unauthorized access of sensitive information and protect its integrity and confidentiality.

Prominent FISMA requirements include:

  1. Maintain an inventory of sensitive data and information systems
  2. Categorize sensitive data and information systems according to risk level
  3. Develop access controls
  4. Maintain a system security plan (SSP)
  5. Develop and execute security controls
  6. Conduct risk assessments
  7. Obtain accreditation
  8. Implement continuous monitoring

FISMA Compliance Checklist

Achieving FISMA compliance doesn’t have to be complicated. By following a few best practices, you can make the security assessment and accreditation process much simpler for your organization.

We’ve provided a few of those best practices below to help you begin your FISMA compliance journey.


Take an inventory of your sensitive data and its associated IT systems.


Run a risk assessment to understand all potential risks facing your sensitive data and IT systems.


Implement appropriate security controls as mandated by FISMA and NIST guidelines. Of particular relevance is NIST 800-53, which provides a catalog of security and privacy controls for all U.S. federal information systems.


Create security policies for access management as well as categorization of assets as they enter your system.


Use automation to ensure sensitive data is always encrypted.


Document and maintain all documentation that provides authentication for your FISMA compliance efforts.

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Reciprocity Has Your Solution for FISMA Compliance

Achieving certification for FISMA can require a significant investment in time and resources, particularly for an organization still using legacy tools and spreadsheets to achieve and maintain compliance workflows.

Also remember: initial compliance certification is only half the battle. After certification is achieved, your organization must keep up compliance management to assure that the new systems, processes, and controls don’t degrade over time.

At Reciprocity, our compliance experts can help you to prepare your FISMA compliance and certification program, expedite the process and minimize the burden on your team.

The ZenGRC SaaS platform is an efficient solution to continuous compliance. Businesses don’t have to worry about their compliance stance because ZenGRC monitors it over the entire lifecycle and keeps up with the latest data protection regulations and requirements.

ZenGRC SOC Capabilities

  • User-friendly dashboard with real-time metrics on prioritized risks
  • Pre-built templates that can help you with your compliance audits
  • A central repository for all audit-ready documentation
  • Control mapping to streamline compliance efforts across multiple frameworks like HIPAA, GDPR, and PCI-DSS
  • Insight into team member progress at fulfilling FISMA requirements
  • Tracking functionality for outstanding service provider requirements
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Frequently Asked Questions

FISMA compliance refers to data security standards created by the Federal Information Security Management Act and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The standards NIST adopts for FISMA compliance are used to help federal agencies develop, execute, and maintain an information security program to protect any sensitive data they work with.

Any federal agency, as well as any private company that contracts its services with a federal agency or receives federal grant money, must comply with FISMA.

‘FISMA high’ refers to a FISMA compliance program with a high-risk level. Risk levels can either be low, moderate, and high. For example, a FISMA high data center may have as many as 340 security controls, while a FISMA moderate facility may only have 261.

Yes. Every federal agency, whether it be civilian, defense, or otherwise, must meet FISMA compliance requirements and apply for certification on an annual basis. No agency is exempt.

FISMA is a law. It requires government agencies to implement an information security program that manages risk and protects data from unauthorized access.

NIST is a non-regulatory agency that is responsible for providing specific guidelines that federal agencies can use to create their FISMA compliance program.