Obama's emerging IT agenda could mean big changes

Experts assess the potential ramifications of the president’s IT agenda

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama’s vision for technology was off the charts of anyone’s prior expectations.

A self-confessed Blackberry addict, Obama personally understood the power of connectivity. A relentless campaigner, he realized that social networking technology was unmatched in its ability to influence public opinion and rally supporters. A “change candidate,” he saw technology as an integral component of his strategy to rein in the cost and improve the effectiveness of major government programs.

Of course, now the stakes have changed entirely, because Candidate Obama has become President Obama. Instead of running a campaign, he is running the federal government, so his vision for technology must be filtered through legislation, regulations and commonplace bureaucracy. Faced with these realities, many a candidate promising big change has opted, as president, to settle for much less.

Just four months into his administration, it is too soon to tell how Obama will fare. Nonetheless, through a variety of venues, including speeches, blogs sites and policy documents, the president has continued to talk up his IT agenda and herald the new era of Government 2.0.

But does it all add up? We asked FCW staff writers Doug Beizer, Alice Lipowicz and Matthew Weigelt to talk with experts around the community to take measure of Obama’s ambitions for IT in five areas featured prominently in the president’s IT agenda: Web 2.0, health information technology, transparency, acquisition reform and workforce improvement.

For each area we asked our experts to gauge the significance of the changes promised and to explain the ramifications for the community. Here are their reports.

Acquisition: Shifting into overdrive 

The Obama administration is largely reversing course on procurement policy from the previous George W. Bush administration. Obama’s emphasis on using fixed-price contracts, enlarging the acquisition workforce and making contracting information widely available is a contrast to his predecessor, who encouraged competitions between federal and private-sector employees for government work, arguing that it saved money. But Obama officials say those competitions walked too close to the line on what are inherently governmental duties.

However, giving the federal workforce more responsibility for contracting duties presents Obama’s team with some daunting challenges.

The economic stimulus legislation that moved through Congress in the president's first weeks in office has allowed Obama to begin making moves quickly. The nearly $800 billion measure included transparency rules and other procurement policy measures that are only a taste of what many observers — critics and supporters alike — believe is coming. “The stimulus is the wave of the future,” said Soraya Correa, director of procurement operations at the Homeland Security Department.

The stimulus bill requirements will force agencies to keep a closer eye on what they spend and how they spend it because the information will be public, Correa said. General Services Administration officials said they are working on large-scale modifications to their multiple-award schedule contracts to increase the amount of information companies need to reveal when spending stimulus money.

The government is asking for companies’ pricing models and expecting them to give up trade secrets, said Trey Hodgkins, vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica. Agencies will be asking contractors for their spending and subcontracting information. And to remain in GSA’s schedules program, companies will need to agree to adhere to the new recovery act requirements.

“That means your data is out there,” Correa told a group of small-business owners. She urged them to make sure their financial records are in order and presentable.

Now that the public can see the details of contracts, the president is pushing to change the details of many of them. Obama promised, during the campaign and again in a speech March 4, to “end unnecessary no-bid contracts and cost-plus contracts that run up the bill that is paid by the American people.”

Although critics of his plan say Obama underestimates the importance of cost-plus contracts for some circumstances, Obama has forged ahead. He estimates the reforms of no-bid contracts could save $40 billion each year.

Web 2.0: Heading into new territory

In Obama’s first weeks in office, video addresses replaced weekly radio addresses, and those videos began to appear on YouTube. A virtual town hall meeting supplemented in-person town halls. Daily administration talking points, updates and news releases have become part of a blog.

However, Obama’s use of social-media technology remains something of an experiment. Although Web 2.0 tools played an important role in winning the election, it is still not readily apparent that collaboration with the public will be as important to a sitting president.

Obama is using social-networking tools like no politician has done before, said Dallas Lawrence, who served for five years on a Bush administration communications team. For the most part, Obama’s use of the Internet coincides with the availability of new tools, he said.

“I think it has much less to do with how Bush approached the online space and an awful lot more about how dramatically the online world has changed in the last 12 months,” he said.

When Bush was elected in 2000, only about 51 percent of the United States was online, and there were no YouTube, Facebook or Twitter, said Lawrence, who is now with Levick Strategic Communications. Bush was the first president to name a director of e-communications, and his administration regularly engaged with bloggers, Lawrence said.

Web 2.0 technology was great for running a campaign, but now the White House needs to communicate with the entire country, not just a network of people supporting a candidate, he said. Lawrence now expects the administration to try to reach a broader audience by using Web 2.0 tools.

“I think if they can do that, they’re going to be incredibly successful,” Lawrence said. “Success for them is really going to be judged by how they convert that online interaction into off-line action. That is something Bush couldn’t do because the technology wasn’t there, the people weren’t there, and the networks weren’t already formed.”

Jeff Gulati, a political science professor at Bentley University in Massachusetts, said he thinks the use of Web 2.0 tools in the White House likely won’t expand much beyond what is there today. The tools might make government more transparent and make people feel involved in the process, but the technology will not help the administration pass legislation, he said.

“The goal for this administration is passing legislation, and quite frankly, these tools aren’t helpful for doing that,” Gulati said. “Whether negotiating with members of Congress or pushing an agenda through Congress, these tools are just not that useful.”

It will take more than a year to get a good sense of how the administration will use Web 2.0, said Scott Burns a co-founder of GovDelivery, which provides software as a service to government customers. However, compared to past presidents, the speed at which technology is implemented will seem fast.

“The Change.gov Web site was put together very quickly and without all of the challenges of changing a permanent and official government Web site such as WhiteHouse.gov,” Burns said.

Administration officials created the virtual town hall’s Open for Questions effort in less than a week using Web-based technology.

“It was an enormous success if you judge it by the 92,937 people that participated,” Burns said.

Health IT: Buckle up, change is coming

Obama wasted no time in promoting national electronic health records. In less than a month after taking office, he sought and won Congress’ approval in the stimulus bill for a massive infusion of $19 billion in new spending and tax incentives to encourage doctors and hospitals to switch to digital records.

“The seeds were planted by the Bush administration,” said Gerry Hinkley, partner at David Wright Tremaine law firm in San Francisco. “What the Obama administration has done is to recognize the need for funding.”

“The stimulus funding is a significant change,” said Dr. Carol Diamond, chairwoman of the health program at the Markle Foundation. “Previously, we were trying to influence the private sector to invest in health IT adoption. This is the first time government is using its market power.”

The stimulus law also contained a policy framework, and experts predict rapid developments in the months ahead. The Health and Human Services Department will be writing regulations to set standards for health IT systems and terms for the incentive payments to doctors and hospitals.

Federal advisory committees met for the first time in early May to help define “meaningful use.” Under the stimulus law, providers must purchase health IT systems and use them meaningfully to qualify for federal stimulus payments of as much as $44,000 per doctor.

The meaningful-use requirement is an opportunity to ensure that hospitals and doctor's offices use health IT to improve quality of care, efficiency and cost effectiveness. “The purpose of health IT is to improve care,” Diamond said. “Let us set the right objectives for this money.”

That includes setting technical standards appropriately to encourage innovation and competition and link new and existing electronic record systems. “We do not want to set up electronic silos to replace the paper silos,” said Glen Tullman, chief executive officer of Allscripts Healthcare Solutions, a health IT systems provider in Chicago.

Major challenges lie ahead. Physicians in recent years have been slow to adopt electronic records because of high cost and difficulty of use. “The biggest single problem has been getting doctors to adopt the systems,” said Dr. Rex Cowdry, executive director of the Maryland Health Care Commission. The government funding strives to solve that problem, but there still might be many physicians who view the changes as a threat to their autonomy. “Professionals do not like to be dictated to,” Cowdry said.

Ultimately, the goal is a reformed health care system. “The greatest challenge is whether we can set up health IT systems to change medicine and control costs in a meaningful way,” Cowdry said.

Workforce: More staff, more demands

The Obama administration also wants to develop a larger and more capable acquisition workforce. And with the complexity and sheer number of contracts expected, the workforce needs to know the ins and outs of acquisition regulations to stay on top of the work, officials agree.

“We require people to do a lot of things,” said David Drabkin, acting chief acquisition officer at GSA, in a recent speech.

Obama’s speeches and a memo about acquisition reforms have highlighted the desperate need for a more experienced acquisition workforce with a deeper bench, especially as spending skyrockets and oversight becomes highly fine-tuned.

Office of Management and Budget officials are developing guidance to help agencies assess whether their acquisition workforces have the ability to develop and manage contracts appropriately.

Agencies need to know where their weaknesses lie, experts say, and agencies have been taking a closer look at their acquisition employees. Agency officials and numerous inspectors general have concerns about a strained workforce getting more money to spend from the stimulus bill, which also comes with closer oversight.

GSA is an example. Despite its successes in recruiting workers in other fields, one area that remains a concern — and a recruitment and retention challenge — is in the acquisition field, said Gail Lovelace, GSA’s chief human capital officer. The agency is using the direct-hire authority that allows GSA to speed the hiring process and reach out to retired contracting officers to tap their experience.

Agencies overall re-employed 57 retirees in 2008, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy said. Agencies are gaining experience with this authority, and OFPP expects them to hire more retired professionals in the near future, according to a letter from agency officials to Congress.

At the same time, the new administration is intent on pulling work away from private contractors and bringing it back to the agency.

In his fiscal 2010 budget reductions, the Obama administration said it intends to save close to $1 billion in fiscal 2010 by decreasing the Defense Department’s reliance on contracted support service personnel and bringing many of those jobs in-house. Under this plan, DOD's contract workforce would drop from 39 percent of the total workforce to 26 percent, the lowest level since before the George W. Bush administration.

To that end, DOD’s 2010 budget request reduces funds for service contracts and expects to achieve savings of 40 percent per year by replacing selected contractors with 33,600 federal civilians by 2015. The net savings is $900 million, according to budget documents released last week.

Robert Burton, former OFPP deputy administrator and now partner at Venable law firm, said the president’s tone in speeches and his memo matches what Congress included in the fiscal 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, with its restrictions on no-bid contracts, reviews of cost-reimbursement contracts, concerns about the acquisition workforce, and greater transparency.

“I’ve been astounded at the rapid rate of changes we’ve seen in the last year,” Burton said. “Now we’re going to start complaining it’s getting [to be] too much.”

Transparency: Could be hype, could be substance

Hardly a speech goes by in which Obama, or someone in his administration, fails to mention transparency. The administration has recruited experts in new media and Internet communications to make the promise of transparency a reality.

For example, participants in the first virtual town hall meeting could see what questions others had submitted and were invited to vote and comment on the questions before the event. Everything was out in the open.

Also, in contrast to the Bush administration, Obama has appointed a staff member to communicate his policies, released documents that had previously been off-limits, and plans to detail government spending on a new Web site, Recovery.gov.

But as federal, state and local agencies begin to spend stimulus money and those dollars are tracked on Recovery.gov, it remains to be seen just how transparent the Obama administration will be, said Archon Fung, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Making millions of lines of raw data available on a Web site is not necessarily transparency, he said. “Effective transparency requires data to be provided in ways that can be understood and acted upon,” Fung said. “Successful transparency is providing information in ways that actually engage people and enable them to make better decisions."

In Los Angeles, for example, the door of every restaurant has a letter grade posted that is based on the most recent health and safety inspection. So rather than looking up health inspection reports on the Web, consumers can easily see how well every restaurant scored before going inside. That kind of usable information is the key to transparency, Fung said.

Another barometer of the Obama administration's dedication to transparency is its openness to providing the public with data in a form that others can customize.

“Sometimes, policy-makers in this arena have the impulse of trying to do everything themselves, from gathering the data all the way to building the very Web site that citizens use to access the data,” Fung said. He added that it's more constructive for agencies to collect the data and then make it available "for third parties to mash up and combine and make available to their audiences in the more effective ways.”

It appears the Obama administration plans to do this. But again, Fung said, it is too soon to know.

Communicating how government decisions are made will be one of the biggest measures of transparency, said Bob Otto, former chief information officer and chief technology officer for the U.S. Postal Service and now an executive vice president at Agilex Technologies.

Obama’s technology team needs more time in office to develop the standards and models to achieve that, Otto said.

One of the big issues Obama faces is how to solicit input from people when forming policy and legislation. Traditionally, the White House might have published a request for comment in the Federal Register and privately assessed the responses.

Otto said the Obama team appears to be pushing for a more open and deliberative process. “For example, something similar to a standards body, where proposed rules are created collaboratively via a wiki," he said. "While there are challenges in scaling this model, this is not insurmountable.”

The new administration’s decision to rescind President Bush's executive order that limited public disclosure and access to presidential records is a prime example of the differences between the two administrations, said Daryl Blowes, founder of IQM2, which provides consulting and software development services to government customers.

During the first 100 days, Obama released more than 250,000 pages of previously sealed presidential records, he said.

“This is a good start, but there is still a long road ahead before they achieve what they and transparency groups advocated for the first 100 days,” Blowes said. “While the intent seems to be good, the knowledge of how to do it efficiently seems to be lacking.”

Public-sector leaders who face those transparency mandates say the technology tools are just not there to meet the demand.


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