Buying power

Nothing worth doing comes easy. Just ask Barack Obama, who’s now learning the hard truth about how big, bold ideas get ground into legislative sausage in Congress — and, increasingly, in the bottomless stomach of the 24-hour news cycle.

We should also ask Vivek Kundra, Obama’s kindred spirit in the Office of Management and Budget, where he serves as the first federal chief information officer. Kundra has been making the rounds recently (including the Open Government and Innovations Conference last week, sponsored by Federal Computer Week’s parent company), touting the notion of creating a “superstore” for government information technology purchases.

The idea, as reported by staff writer Doug Beizer, is to set up a virtual storefront where agencies can quickly purchase cloud-computing services. Kundra has been a big cloud-computing advocate since his days as chief technology officer of the District of Columbia, when he realized he could sit in a coffee shop with a notebook and Wi-Fi connection, and get more work done than city employees on their office computers.

City workers now regularly use the Google Apps software service to collaborate on documents, spreadsheets and presentations, instead of paying for more costly software licenses to acquire and run equivalent applications in-house.

But in trying to translate that success to the federal level, Kundra has run headlong into a stark reality of agency decision-making: the slow walk of the government procurement process, which brings layer upon layer of people, processes and turf conflicts into any purchasing equation. What’s more, the federal government’s software-procurement process was designed for large, complex systems, which ultimately favors incumbent suppliers, not upstarts with their heads in the cloud.

So the resistance factor is already creeping in, which means Kundra, like his role model in the Oval Office, has to use his bully pulpit to try to upend the status-quo inertia.

But as columnist Chris Bronk points out, sometimes the end-users tell you what direction the technology is moving before the suppliers and their organizational clients have felt the change in the prevailing winds. Computing is a service, he writes, and now that a service like e-mail has become standardized and commoditized, why should every agency of government set up and maintain its own Exchange server?

Kundra is not the first to express frustration with the process for buying IT in government, of course. As staff writer Matthew Weigelt reports this week, procurement officials at the Defense Department are working on several ideas to step up the buying cycle and improve cost and performance. Before those ideas can really kick in, however, a number of changes have to take place at every level of the government, from policies and personnel training to organizational structure.

In other words, it’s not going to be easy. And it’s not something that can be accomplished solely from a bully pulpit. The pulpit may be the place to start changing minds, but if it’s worth doing, then someone’s got to roll up their sleeves and make the sausage.

About the Author

David Rapp is editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week and VP of content for 1105 Government Information Group.

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