Look for a replay on acquisition reform

The drumbeat for procurement reform is getting louder, but consensus on how to proceed is lacking.

government industry dialog

Federal procurement experts say the HealthCare.gov website's difficulties could mark the beginning of a comprehensive inquiry into federal procurement practices in the coming year, as federal agencies and vendors look beyond short-term fixes to the government's complex acquisition processes.

At the same time, they warned against moving too quickly on reform efforts that use the troubled site as a guide star.

"It's more of a systemic challenge," said Sam Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. "There's no real evidence that the proposal and solicitations [for HealthCare.gov] were anything but fine."

But it certainly got everyone’s attention.

"HealthCare.gov," said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president of public sector at the Information Technology Industry Council, "is critical because it has ignited a discussion on IT acquisition in Washington not seen since the 1980s. There is an alignment of political will on the issue and a healthy understanding of the larger systematic failure in acquisition."

The drumbeat for procurement reform is getting louder. Even President Barack Obama attributed some of the difficulties at the health care website to procurement practices. He told a Wall St. Journal CEO Council meeting in mid-November that the gap between public and private sector IT has never been greater.

“What we probably needed to do on the front end was to blow up how we procure for IT, especially on a system this complicated," he said. On Dec. 11, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced her department’s inspector general would investigate the performance of HealthCare.gov contractors.

Exactly how reform might proceed from Obama's and Sebelius' pronouncements is far from clear.

The highest-profile legislative attempt to overhaul IT acquisition, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), was passed by the House in June as part of the annual defense policy bill, but negotiators left it out of the final version of that measure. FITARA sought to increase the authority of CIOs regarding information technology spending for the 16 major civilian agencies. FITARA's provisions were aimed at streamlining government-wide acquisition processes, increasing transparency, eliminating duplication and waste, and strengthening the CIO's control over IT projects.

"We note that the acquisition of information technology is a challenge across the federal government and that reform of the information technology acquisition process remains a priority in the defense committees and the Congress," said the House and Senate Armed Services Committees’ explanatory statement on Dec. 11. "We expect to continue working on improvements in this area and hope to bring a set of comprehensive reforms forward in the next fiscal year."

The lawmakers gave no timetable for the 2014 efforts.

Outside Congress, industry would like to see a vision wider than that offered by FITARA.

"FITARA was a surgical approach. It addressed specifics like data center consolidation and cloud computing," Hodgkins said.

For a sprawling IT procurement like the one required by HealthCare.gov, FITARA wouldn't have had much of an impact, he said, because it wouldn't have been specific enough. "Ultimately," said Hodgkins, "how government manages what it buys can't be managed with a 50-page regulation."

Beyond FITARA and HealthCare.gov, said Hodgkins, how to get and retain a qualified federal procurement workforce in the face of an onrushing tide of retirements is another issue that needs to be folded into procurement reform talk, along with CIO authority for agencies, enhanced management of investment decisions and an update for the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA).

"You have to make sure you don't lose sight of the big picture by solving two or three problems with 'silver bullet' legislation,” he said.

NEXT STORY: IT agenda teed up for 2014

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