President puts IT procurement in the spotlight

President Obama speaks to the press about IT procurement and's launch troubles

President Barack Obama spoke to the press on Nov. 14 about launch problems with and the larger challenges of federal IT procurement.

President Barack Obama told reporters that he was not kept up to date on pre-launch problems with the website in the run-up to the Oct. 1 open enrollment date.

"I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as — the way it was supposed to," Obama said in a Nov. 14 press conference. "You know, I'm accused of a lot of things, but I don't think I'm stupid enough to go around saying, this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity, a week before the website opens, if I thought that it wasn't going to work."

Obama took aim at the federal IT procurement system as one of the culprits for the deeply flawed website launch. He noted that while his campaign could freely build whatever technology suited its needs, the situation is different in federal IT. "If you're doing it at the federal government level, you're going through 40 pages of specs and this and that and the other, and there are all kinds of laws involved, and it makes it more difficult. It's part of the reason why, chronically, federal IT programs are over budget, behind schedule," Obama said.

As Obama's "tech surge" team, headed by former administration official Jeff Zients and assisted by federal CTO Todd Park, looks to put on stable footing, some in government are looking to future IT reforms.

"I think the way we implement technology, the speed at which technology moves, often times it's challenging to drive innovation in the context of cycles that take six to nine months, a year or more to implement technology, and by the time you get the procurement done, the technology will change," federal CIO Steve VanRoekel told reporters after a speech in October. "But procurement's not the only thing. It takes great governance, great management, an eye toward cybersecurity -- all of these things have to come into concert."

And according to two top former federal IT officials, the government already has many of the tools and strategies it needs to drive success in complex, long -term IT projects.

Part of the problem with goes back to the planning stages, before contractors were even hired, said former Bush administration IT official Karen Evans. The requirements of the 2010 health care law and its accompanying regulations have an impact on how the website was designed and scoped. Evans, who served for six years in the Office of Management and Budget, said the problems with are emblematic of a flawed governance structure.

"IT projects are particularly good at highlighting management failings because they require coordination between many different parts of an organization," she said in a Nov. 13 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "If the agency CIO is not actively at the management table, participating in those decisions and, more importantly, explaining the ramifications of the policy decisions they are making, then projects get off-track and ultimately fail."

IT projects are particularly good at highlighting management failings.
-- Karen Evans

Richard Spires, the former CIO of the Department of Homeland Security [and an occasional FCW contributor], testified at the same hearing. He said the rollout of demonstrates "fundamental weaknesses in the program management processes" and an incorrect balance between the business and IT organizations at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which was responsible for building the.

Spires told legislators that integrated testing should have been completed six months before launch, with three months of end-to-end testing, and a pilot phase or beta period in which a select user group could have discovered further bugs in the system, giving developers time to make corrections.

While Spires recommended passing legislation to give agency CIOs clear lines of authority and visibility into projects and to establish government-wide centers for sharing best practices, most of the reforms he suggests could be adopted into the business of IT procurement and development under current law.

The stakes are high, Spires noted, not simply to avoid public embarrassments like the launch of a buggy, untested website, but because IT is going to be increasingly important to the efficient delivery of government services in an era of technological change and constrained federal budgets.

"Our government, if it more effectively manages IT, can harness its transformational capability, significantly improving government's effectiveness and efficiency," Spires said.

Video of President Obama's Nov. 14 remarks

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.

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Government Cyber Insider tracks the technologies, policies, threats and emerging solutions that shape the cybersecurity landscape.


Reader comments

Tue, Nov 19, 2013 Mike Craner

I'll loose little sleep over this. The president is responsible for not just the website mess but because of his lack of honesty ("I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as — the way it was supposed to,") has now caused additional light on the IT procurement process/policies. We all know now that his statements are questionable. "DIRECTLY" will no doubt be that he knew of the mess, but did not receive the information DIRECTLY from HHS. Ah right! As noted in other remarks posted, after several years and committees later, nothing changes and nothing will change in the next three years. This Administration is damaged and a lame duck! So, we will continue with the current policies and processes for another three years - at least. There is no one that can carry the water, and if we do find someone, where will he/she carry it!

Mon, Nov 18, 2013

Whatever comes out of this predictable mess, another central committee oversight process that further dilutes IT authority and program manager accountability will only slow things down further and not improve outcomes. CIOs often lack the program management skills and their authority is further ambiguated by U.S.C. 22202.

Mon, Nov 18, 2013 John Weiler, United States

Clinger Cohen Act tried to fix this, but the rice bowls and waste fed a strong lobby that refused change. The IT Acquisition Advisory Council (IT-AAC) was stood up in 2008, believing that there was sufficient critical mass and national security threat as noted in the landmark 09 Def Science Board rpt. Hopefully, we have the perfect storm to move the discussion towards action. We don't need any more studies by FFRDCs who are vested in the status quo. FITARA will also fall short if we leave the system to its own devices. Bring back National Performance Review that will hold up bonuses and fire non-performers. Our nation is bleeding badly..... who is ready to be part of the solution and put country first (not the $). I am having a hard time finding a handful.

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