Procurement

HealthCare.gov becomes example for procurement criticism

horse and buggy

TechAmerica's Trey Hodgkins saya 'horse and buggy-era' funding is part of the problem in federal procurement. (Stock image)

The government has to undertake a wholesale review of the way it buys IT products and services in the wake of the meltdown of Health and Human Service's HealthCare.gov website, according to a procurement expert at a technology trade group.

"We're using Cold War-era processes" to buy IT technology, Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of global public sector at TechAmerica, said during an Oct. 28 teleconference.

The federal budgeting process that fuels government procurement is also broken, adding to the IT problem. "We're using horse-and-buggy era funding processes to fund leading-edge technology. It can't keep pace. It's arcane and has a three-to-five year lead-time."

Hodgkins maintained that the HealthCare.gov crisis only further emphasized what TechAmerica has been saying for some time -- that regulations, some of which were created before the 1980s and  pre-date cloud and mobile computing -- are a tall obstacle for innovation.

Recent efforts at procurement reform have been knee-jerk reactions to specific, sometimes egregious, contracting cases that failed to address wider reform, he said.

Hodgkins said he hopes any changes that result from the negative exposure of HealthCare.gov will offer a chance for a wholesale review of the procurement process, from regulations to the workforce to technological issues.

The need for a leaner, more efficient system has been recognized for a long time, according to Hodgkins, but he warned against more quick-fix tweaks.

Initial low-hanging fruit that could be addressed include incentivizing federal procurement workers to get the most effective solutions for each contract. He said less emphasis might be placed on the price in favor of an effective solution.

He called "lowest priced, technically acceptable" solutions "a fad" that doesn't contribute to value in the long run, particularly for IT goods and services. "Cheap printers are nice, but if it doesn't work it's not worth it," he said.

Making it easier for commercial entities to participate in federal procurement would inject IT solutions and products more quickly and easily into government projects.

HealthCare.gov, he said, was put together using a disjointed process that began with an indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract from 2007, which predated the health care law and did not include a truly competitive bidding process. The site was cobbled together with task orders cut from that contract. The project, he said, would have been better served if the agency drew up a full and open contract for the specific project and put it out for competitive bids.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer covering acquisition, procurement and homeland security. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Tue, Oct 29, 2013 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Although I think that procurement does need to be reviewed, we seem to be missing the real issues of the healthcare.gov failures. Some great comments here, but DC FED is really getting at the heart of the issue. What happened with healthcare.gov is symptomatic of federal IT, in which feds continue the "big bang" approaches to buying. Until leadership understand this is a fool's errand, we can expect more healthcare.gov, and subsequent waste of hundred of millions of dollars with little to show for the investment. Agile, load testing, system engineering, etc. are all buzzwords, as little is being done to effectively bring IT capability and innovation with software development into the federal space. These skill sets simply do not exist at the federal level internally, and many qualified companies are shut out because they do not have the access and the marketing muscle like the larger firms (e.g. the normal cast of characters, or the "IT Cartel" Vivek Kundra mentioned). We need to realize these problems are not so much about the rules and regulations, but the purposeful inflexibility federal leaders put into federal IT to propagate empire building and jobs programs for themselves, in addition to large companies and their Congressional influencers (lobbyists). If capability was desired, we would have real accountability, carefully crafted requirements that are achievable within budgetary and scheduling constraints, and real opportunities for commercial firms and small businesses, in particularly, with innovative solutions to transform the federal IT landscape. However, ignorance is bliss, and profitable.

Tue, Oct 29, 2013 M

I think the author is either poorly informed or egregiously disingenuous. The Federal Government acquisition workforce has numerous, very flexible, tools at our disposal to procure products and services . Nothing in the world says that any contracting officer must use LPTA in a source selection. The Government has every right to purchase the higher quality printer, providing that this is what they defined as their requirement up front. Poorly chosen acquisition strategies, including bad source selection criteria or failure to purchase commercially available solutions, are a matter of incompetence, not lack of tools. Yes, by all means, we could modernize certain things, but saying that we are significantly constrained by the rules gives an unfair crutch to those who merely failed to manage their acquisition effectively and make use of the flexibility available within the system.

Tue, Oct 29, 2013 modest_proposal NoVA

Good article - "never let a good crisis go to waste" - this crisis certainly throws a spotlight on IT implementation in fed gov't, from budget to procurement to execution and operation. @DC_Fed - concur that IT capability is a deficit in fed gov. lots of reasons for that, but the budgeting, program, and project management ball and chain in government drives people out. This leads to a death spiral of failure->excessive governance (procurement and IT)->flight of personnel->failure.

Tue, Oct 29, 2013 OccupyIT

While I agree whole heartedly with the coment about LPTA and certainly a bad procurement strategy can tie the hands of a capable USG Program Manager in this case the Program Management (Leadership and Decision Making Process both by individuals and the group) failed. When the USG decided to be their own System Integrator they made what should be a career decision for the failed managers. They declared their own mastery as professionals and weren't up to the job. What would be said of a contractor in that position?

Tue, Oct 29, 2013 DC Fed Washington DC

The acquisition process is arcane, inefficient and in severe need of reform/modernization. However, blaming the failure of Healthcare.gov on a lack of competitive bidding and a sluggish procurement process is disingenuous at best. It wont matter what kind of procurement process or vehicle you use if you dont pay attention to the fundamentals and that starts with strong and competent project leadership at the PM level and the project's CTO. An honest evaluation of this massive failure is going to point out the lack of qualified and committed program leaders from the Fed workforce as well as the contractors. You can already see the evidence of that statement by the way each leader that has been interviewed has publicly blamed others or dissembled in the face of probing inquiry. They don't know, or won't admit, what went wrong and they dont have a credible plan to fix it. The hearings and news interviews have thus far shown that the entire leadership behaved as rank amateurs lacking technical skills, lacking a grasp of their fiduciary responsibility to anyone but themselves, lacking demonstrable experience managing large scale projects, etc. AND the worst part of all of this, apart from the waste and abuse of the taxpayer, is that by demonstrating their own foolishness, they've painted the rest of the Federal IT workforce with the same brush. The press, the Congress and much of the American public are tagging us as incompetent and incapable. So let's stop trying to find blame for this failure on procurement and put it where it squarely lies, on the Federal and Contractor CO's, COR's, PM's and CTO's (and their political masters). Let's run them out of town on a rail so the rest of us can get on with our work without their spectre hanging over us.

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