Seeking some common ground

Federal IT is difficult enough without viewing agencies and industry as zero-sum adversaries, writes FCW's Troy K. Schneider.

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Federal IT is difficult enough in the best of circumstances. Do we really need to make it harder by viewing agencies and industry as zero-sum adversaries?

That question has been on my mind in recent weeks and reinforced by several stories. The General Services Administration's launch of 18F raised concerns that the new tech shop would compete with private firms for agency business without having to navigate the same thicket of acquisition rules. The HealthCare.gov signup deadline brought more arguments over how to allocate blame for the botched rollout. And the Defense Department's debut of milCloud -- combined with the slow release of standards that private firms must meet to compete at DOD's higher Impact Levels -- has sparked new grumbling that the Defense Information Systems Agency is seeking market share at the expense of a level playing field.

FCW recently took a close look at the milCloud story, which details just how distrustful key stakeholders have become. (Another feature, soon to run  on FCW.com, explores agencies' relationships with Congress now that government shutdowns seem off the table -- but that's a whole other flavor of distrust and dysfunction.) Although some of that distrust boils down to old-fashioned posturing by all parties, it's clear that fundamental questions and disconnects exist.

What are the inherently governmental functions when it comes to IT? Beyond that baseline, what can agencies realistically build themselves -- and what should they? Must bang for the taxpayer buck always be the deciding factor? And how do the government's stated goals of encouraging small business and growing the economy factor into the equation?

In Washington, the answers shouted loudest tend to simplify for politics' sake. On the topic of HealthCare.gov, for example, one columnist declared, "What some are taking as a triumph of governmental competence was actually an emergency rescue by private-sector volunteers after a laughable failure of government to construct and run its own system." As if the original debacle was not also built by private contractors and the government was not involved in recruiting and running the subsequent rescue effort.

FCW readers, of course, know better. Industry and government are in this together. And while more competition is great, a bit more collaboration and honest conversation would go a long way as well.

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