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Posted by on Jul 1, 2014

The Moving Pieces of IT Acquisition Reform

The Federal government spent $82 billion on information technology in FY 2014. As overseers from GAO have warned time and again, these Federal IT projects frequently fail, going over budget or beyond schedule, and in the end contributing “little to mission-related outcomes.” This is a pretty damning assessment of how the government spends its money on information technology.

A hearing last month before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Oversight Committee brought together some of the major players in IT procurement policy, who discussed efforts already underway as well as coming changes to policy and guidance aimed at improving the government’s track record of bungling technology buys.

Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel laid out a number of tools in place and initiatives underway that are already impacting government IT procurement, most notably the efforts to make spending and performance data more transparent through systems such as PortfolioStat and the IT Dashboard. VanRoekel estimates that the PortfolioStat process alone has resulted in $2.5 billion of identified cost savings and $1.9 billion of realized savings.

GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini talked about not just the tools employed to improve IT procurement but the approach itself. GSA, which many see as a testing ground for innovative acquisition practices, has recently been deploying an agile approach. “GSA IT has moved away from the world of waterfall application development methodologies that have historically led to higher costs and poor product quality,” Tangherlini said at the hearing, “to an agile methodology which allows us to work better, faster, and leaner than we ever have before.”

Elements of this agile approach are being picked up governmentwide. Back in 2010, OMB began emphasizing incremental development to reduce investment risk — agency IT investments needed to deliver functionality within 12 months. In 2012, it doubled down: agency IT investments must deliver functionality every six months.

It must be noted that this hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. GAO reported at the hearing that three quarters of the investments it reviewed didn’t plan to deliver capabilities within six months and that less than half would deliver within a year. GAO said that OMB should issue clearer guidance on incremental development and that agencies should implement stricter policies based on that guidance.

A number of initiatives are also in the pipelines that could have dramatic effect on how agencies buy technology. The long-awaited (third time’s a charm?) Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), for example, recently passed in the House as part of the 2015 Defense Authorization Act and awaits Senate consideration. If adopted, it would raise the profile of agency CIOs—the number of Federal CIOs would be reduced, but those remaining would have considerably more authority over strategy and budget and report directly to agency heads. The bill also aims to reduce duplicative procurement efforts across the government and to strengthen the IT acquisition workforce.

On that last piece, FAI has already begun moving to add an IT track to its FAC-C program—promising more details by the end of the year on a training specialization for complex technology buys. This will likely support the IT track added to FAC-P/PM for program and project managers managing complex IT programs.

Finally, officials are stressing that the government is open to trying new things. FITARA itself would require a three-year pilot at OMB testing alternative approaches for IT acquisition. VanRoekel emphasized the importance of a flexible, pay-for-performance approach that will be wrapped up in the new “Tech FAR” being developed to guide agencies in soliciting services. This Tech FAR will incorporate underutilized FAR-allowed processes and approaches to successfully implement IT programs.

That the government is really bad at buying information technology is no secret. Its procurement infrastructure and record of poor requirements definition are ill-suited to quickly and effectively getting working systems in place. Among the many initiatives being rolled out to get control of IT spending—from transparency efforts to enhanced cloud-based services — the plans to put a cadre of highly-skilled IT procurement officials on the front lines with enhanced flexibilities and the knowledge of how to use them could be the most effective.

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