IT acquisition reform's time is now

Shutterstock images (by Ingka D. Jiw and Oberon): ballot box, budget/costs concept. 

I recently testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on actions the government could take to modernize its IT acquisition process. The hearing covered a lot of ground, but much of the discussion focused on how much of the IT budget goes to operating and maintaining legacy systems and on ideas to significantly improve federal acquisition.

Since that hearing, we’ve already seen some progress. Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) introduced the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2017, which would authorize new funding mechanisms for agencies that will result in long-term savings, less duplication of effort and systems designed with cybersecurity in mind. As I stated in a letter to Hurd and Kelly, the MGT Act will give agencies the flexibility and funding resources they need to modernize legacy systems while taking advantage of governmentwide resources.

I was pleased to see that House lawmakers passed the bill, and I’m optimistic the Senate companion bill will advance, too. There is also good alignment between the MGT Act, the recent cybersecurity executive order, the Trump administration’s budget proposal and the objectives of the recently established American Technology Council. Each recognizes that modernization, risk-managed governance and shared services are foundational to achieving meaningful digital government services and security.

Although the broader acquisition system is badly in need of significant overhaul, there are some good initiatives that can build momentum for a modern digital government. Language in the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act requiring the development of IT acquisition cadres within agencies is helpful. The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act seeks to limit the Defense Department’s reliance on lowest price, technically acceptable for professional and IT services — an approach that should be expanded governmentwide.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security’s Procurement Innovation Lab and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Buyers Club are excellent examples of forward-looking solutions that encourage innovation.

A few examples, however, are not enough. Urgent leadership focus is needed to deliver broad and comprehensive IT acquisition reform that is aligned with positive outcomes for our citizens. Recommendations from me and the other hearing panelists covered a broad spectrum, with some urging a complete overhaul and others calling for the proliferation of best practices and cultural change.

And with agency transformation plans under development, the emergence of a draft defense acquisition reform bill from Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), insight into the Section 809 Panel’s findings at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing and the release of the Cloud Center of Excellence’s guidance on buying cloud services, there’s likely to be much more to discuss.

So what are the critical success factors federal agencies should consider as they seek to modernize IT and reform the acquisition system? I suggest:

  1. Foster communication and collaboration through improved governance — within government and with industry partners.
  2. Institutionalize agile acquisition methods as the default, along with the use of statements of objectives and the adoption of standard innovation templates in solicitations to incentivize new ideas.
  3. Accelerate key leadership appointments for open positions to provide executive sponsorship of high-priority initiatives.
  4. Increase leadership commitment to acquisition and IT workforce training initiatives and the establishment of procurement innovation labs at every agency.
  5. Actively engage key industry organizations to encourage collaborative efforts between government and industry to adopt IT acquisition best practices from the government and the private sector.

Undoubtedly there are others, and I would urge you to join the conversation.

About the Author

Venkatapathi "PV" Puvvada was elected a senior vice president by the Board of Directors in February 2015. In addition, PV was named president of Unisys Federal in July 2014.

As president of Unisys Federal, Venkatapathi is responsible for driving the company's growth in the federal marketplace by providing innovative solutions in areas such as cloud computing, big data, unified communications, mobile applications and security.

Previously, Venkatapathi served as group vice president for the company's federal civilian agency business since 2010. From 2005 to 2010, he was managing partner and chief technology officer for Unisys Federal, overseeing the company's federal solutions portfolio and service delivery excellence. Venkatapathi joined Unisys in 1992.

A vocal advocate of using technology to help federal agencies serve U.S. citizens, Venkatapathi has served in leadership positions at several technology-related industry groups and has won numerous awards for his contributions. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Professional Services Council, a group that advocates on behalf of the federal professional and technical services industry. In 2007-2008, he served as chair of the Industry Advisory Council, a public-private partnership organization dedicated to advancing government through the application of information technology.

Venkatapathi's contributions have been recognized through numerous industry awards. He is a four-time winner of the Federal Computer Week Federal 100 Award, in 2015, 2008, 2005 and 2003. In 2013, media company Executive Mosaic inducted Venkatapathi into the Washington 100, a group of industry leaders "who drive growth at the intersection of the public and private sectors." In 2010, he was named Government Contractor CTO Innovator of the Year in the large business category by the Northern Virginia Technology Council and Washington Technology magazine.

Venkatapathi holds a master's in Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology.​​​​​​


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