Without stepping into the debate on the relative merits of Obamacare, all sides agree that the technical rollout of the healthcare.gov site was less than ideal — botched, some would say. And according to a number of commentators, the root cause of the problem is “the government’s habit of buying outdated, costly and buggy technology.” In other words — the entire system of federal IT procurement. Luckily for us, there are two bills in Congress that want to revolutionize the process and improve the way government delivers services.
The U.S. government spends more than $80 billion a year for information-technology services, but according to a report from IT research firm the Standish Group, 94 percent of projects come in late, over budget or get scrapped completely.
In addition, the Federal Acquisition Regulation (or FAR) is 1900 pages long, with the option of an additional 1000 page supplement from each agency. This is a system that rewards large incumbent companies familiar with the rules, not smaller innovators.
All this is in stark contrast to the standards of efficiency and competition we set and expect in the private sector. And President Obama agrees:
“The biggest gap between the private sector and the federal government is when it comes to IT: how we procure it, how we purchase it. I actually think that once we get this particular website fixed, there are going to be some lessons learned that we can apply to the federal government generally.”
The new bill from Representatives Anna Eshoo and Gerry Connolly is an important second step to Representative Darrell Issa’s Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act that has already made it through the House.
Issa’s bill gives agency CIOs (Chief information officer) the power and prominence to approve all IT spending and internal hires. It also helpfully clarifies the current law to allow for more open source and transparent, software solutions that could encourage smaller companies to bid on projects.
Eshoo’s bill goes a few steps further by creating a new office in the White House to review and guide major IT projects. It would be known as the Digital Government Office within which there would be an Office of the Chief Technology Officer with a direct line to the President.
Other improvements this bill would make are helpfully outlined here by the Department of Better Technology. In short:
1. There would be a Presidential Innovation Fellowship Program
2. The CTO would have the power to hire people outside of the standard government pay schedule (i.e. government can pay people who work in the technology market comparable salaries)
3. Small Acquisition Thresholds would increase from $150,000 to $500,000, making it easier for government to buy small technology projects.
These might sound like small, faraway changes, but Representative Connolly is spot on when he says that “effective governance is inextricably linked with how well government leverages technology to serve its citizens.”
Reforming federal technology procurement is really about getting good talent inside government, building agencies that perform well (and then letting them operate independently), using taxpayer dollars efficiently, and fundamentally about building a government that works better for us.
Eva Arevuo is communications manager for Engine, a San Francisco-based research foundation working with startups and government to create better public policy.