HHS to reverse roles with tech vendors

Health and Human Services Department IT fair Web site

The Department of Health and Human Services is taking an unusual approach to strengthening the partnership between the department and the information technology industry.

Next month, HHS is holding an IT fair, as agencies often do, but this one has a twist. Rather than asking industry organizations to set up booths to present their solutions, the department plans to stage a "reverse IT fair," in which HHS officials exhibit their projects and invite industry professionals to learn about technology needs and business opportunities at HHS' various components.

"We have a lot of very important IT initiatives in the department," said HHS chief information officer Melissa Chapman. "We have the assistance from the vendors, but we also know there are many other qualified vendors out there that we don't have the time to sit down with."

The IT fair will allow HHS officials to communicate with vendors about their overall strategic goals and significant ongoing and planned projects. Vendors can schedule 15-minute, one-on-one meetings with specific department officials.

"Traditionally, the relationship between the federal IT shop and vendors has been one of tasking out specific things," Chapman said. "We are working to transition to an environment of partnering."

Tinabeth Burton, spokeswoman for the Information Technology Association of America, said she has never heard of such a move.

"It's certainly an innovative approach to communications," Burton said. "Sometimes it's hard to know everything that's going on and all the needs of a large department."

Burton anticipated that vendors would welcome the chance to meet with HHS officials. "This will really resonate with the vendors. It's clear communication and an open door," she said. "That's what industry is always seeking — as much information as possible, particularly in this informal way."

Most agencies communicate in the form of a request for information, said Mary Walker, leader of Raytheon Information Solutions' Emerging Healthcare Practice. Although the approach is unusual now, Walker said she expects to see the idea catch on across government.

"I think we'll see more of them," she said. "HHS is going above and beyond vs. some of the other agencies right now."

By meeting with department officials, vendors can more easily tailor their solutions to the department, said John Ortego, former director of the Agricultural Department's National Finance Center. The informal setting also allows government officials to keep up-to-speed on emerging technologies and trends.

"It's a chance to help the government move in the right direction," said Ortego, now a consultant based in New Orleans. "It's an opportunity to inject innovative thinking in the government that's not based on a procurement."

Joiwind Ronen, executive director of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils and the Industry Advisory Council, said the fair was an innovative approach for government to interact with vendors and communicate their IT needs. "This really goes a long way toward those partnerships."

AFCEA International has held similar one-day agency events, said Becky Nolan, executive vice president of AFCEA. Agency heads spend the day meeting industry representatives and presenting their overall IT projects and goals. One difference, however, is the one-on-one appointments, which Nolan said might not be enough time for vendors.

"I know in our dealing with agency principals, they want to be as open and widespread, meeting as many people as possible," Nolan said.

Chapman said the meetings are just the first step to building a relationship, and the tight time frame will encourage vendors to prioritize their discussions and department officials to focus their attention on the vendor. So far, about 125 vendors have signed up, and the day allows for 300 meetings, Chapman said.

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In the market

Some of the organizations in the Department of Health and Human Services that will participate in the Information Technology Opportunity Fair next month:

* Administration for Families and Children.

* Administration on Aging.

* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

* Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

* Food and Drug Administration.

* Indian Health Service.

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