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After weeks of reports about the debacle known as healthcare.gov (here and here), the latest news and actions around preventing the next IT boondoggle are now headed in the direction of reforming IT acquisition.
Although President Obama got in on the action, I do not expect any significant reforms to take place, until the root cause of the problems are addressed. Further, “fixing” IT acquisition is not a silver-bullet endeavor, but as the Professional Service Council highlights in their latest report, there are some fundamental approaches to improving the current situation that do not require any new legislation or further regulations (thankfully).
Nonetheless, if real IT acquisition reform is to be realized, the answer is to dig deep and not focus on outlying issues. Not an easy proposition.
Fixing IT Acquisition: Strip It Down to the Bolts
Just weeks before the failed launch of healthcare.gov, I was having an interesting and enlightening debate with Clay Johnson on LinkedIn regarding innovation and RFP-EZ. Clay is CEO at The Department of Better Technology and one of the original Presidential Innovation Fellows of the RFP-EZ project.
He and I were debating about the need for IT innovation and its definition, in addition to creating software and technologies that provide rapid capability at a fraction of what most IT projects cost. That is to say, it is possible to create and deliver technologies and capabilities that meet end-user expectations for functionality without breaking the bank or requiring being hauled before Congress.
My main concern regarding RFP-EZ is that this technology already exists; mainly through Federal Business Opportunities or FedBizOpps.gov. Wasn’t RFP-EZ a redundant technology? Shouldn’t we be more focused on fixing the real IT acquisition issues, like the workforce?
No question infrastructure, human capital, and execution are major problems, but after seeing healthcare.gov rolled out, and Clay’s remark about the possibilities that exist to solve the issues of IT in the federal space, I believe his vision to reform how government purchases technology is what can lead to real change.
“Big Bang” Means “Big Bucks”, With Little To Show For The Investment
One of the biggest issues I see is simply culture, as government is fully entrenched in purchasing large programs with thousands of disparate requirements and no clear vision of what capabilities are desired. Combined with an aversion to change how business is conducted, and further exacerbated by strong business (e.g. lobbyists) interests that prefer the status quo, this will be one of the hardest issues to combat.
Recent federal leadership comments, I believe, illustrate this point. Comments by former Department of Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires and former acting administrator at the General Services Administration, Jim Williams, illustrate this problem. Although their recommendations are very useful and helpful, one has to wonder about the level of success of IT programs at their respective agencies when they held their respective positions. Furthermore, they both effectively state “Next time we undergo another large program like healthcare.gov, we need to do better.”
To realize real change, we need to put the brakes on this “Big Bang” approach to purchasing IT and ensure return on investment is at the forefront of future technology acquisitions.
Everyone talks about how there is ample competition in the federal acquisition marketplace, and how regulations promote this competition. If you really believe this, I have a bridge to sell you.
There is a reason that such a vast majority of federal business is won by a small number of firms, and this entrenched environment is part of the “IT Cartel” that former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra discussed. Although this moniker was regrettable, and pounced on by large government contractors and the media, his analysis was very accurate.
Although his “25 Point Implementation Plan To Reform Federal Information Technology Management” laid the groundwork for real transformation, I would argue that little has been done to fully execute these initiatives, outside of cloud computing and data center consolidation.
Until government understands that huge multi-million dollar IT programs simply are a continued recipe for waste and little innovation, we will continue to build more projects like healthcare.gov.
What Does Real Change Look Like?
For starters, Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that are hundreds of pages of requirements, that no one understands (especially with requirements that are TBD), go away. After 30+ RFP amendments and months, if not years to award the final contract where the technology requirements are now obsolete at contract award, who thinks this is a good idea anymore?
Further, getting more small businesses in the federal technology space is what will drive more innovation in technology, and improve the level of technological capability that IT projects deliver. As opposed to the business model of requiring large businesses to run these massive legacy systems at enormous expense that total billions every year, smaller firms are simply closer to cutting edge, ground-breaking technological capability that is required to change the paradigm, and improve the level of services the federal government delivers.
All at a fraction of the cost, I might add.
The requirement for Open Systems Architecture would also go a long way to improving capability, since the current environment is to purchase “Commercial-of-the-Shelf” technologies, then spend hundreds of millions of dollars to customize the software for government use that ultimately creates proprietary software, and a nightmare for data rights and licensing fees. This only encourages less competition, since usually only the incumbent (a large business) has the resources to manage these enormous undertakings, or compete on them for that matter. Security issues, for the most part, are also nothing more than a red herring at this point.
Of course, holding those accountable for failure is also woefully lacking in the federal environment. Only in the federal government can you manage a program that wastes millions of dollars, only to have it fail, and possibly canceled, and the only response seems to be a shoulder shrug.
Risk taking and bad management are two separate things, and the former is what needs to be encouraged. Combined with using more Agile development techniques, and a renewed focus on workforce capabilities and not just box-checking certification requirements, are further areas of improving the status quo.
We do not need the next healthcare.gov to drive change. I think we taxpayers have had enough.