HealthCare.gov becomes example for procurement criticism

'Horse and buggy-era' funding cited as part of the problem in federal acquisition.

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.

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