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Coming in March: Biggest Fed IT Acquisition Overhaul Plan Since 1996

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. // J. Scott Applewhite/AP

This story has been updated. 

House Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., plans to introduce legislation to overhaul the way the government buys information technology by the time Congress breaks for its spring recess in late March, he said during a hearing Wednesday.

Issa first floated the proposed IT reboot in September and has been gathering input from industry and government IT and acquisition workers since then.

The Federal IT Reform Act would give agency chief information officers full budget authority including the ability to shift funds from one project to another based on particular needs. It would also gather experts in certain acquisition fields into centers of excellence where they could advise their peers and do more IT purchasing on a governmentwide basis.

The government’s $80 billion in annual IT purchases has been plagued by cost overruns and missed deadlines. IT officials including federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel have focused on chopping IT projects up into more manageable pieces so technology doesn’t outpace a project by the time it’s completed.

Issa, VanRoekel and others have touted technology’s ability to lower the overall cost of government by making operations more efficient and reducing the need for travel.

“Ultimately IT is the toll we pay to better spend $3.5 trillion,” Issa said. “It’s not about the $80 billion we spend on IT.”

Issa’s reform proposal received cautious praise from industry representatives during Wednesday’s hearing and from Daniel Gordon, associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University and former administrator of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

The bill also won praise from Oversight’s ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and the ranking Democrat on its Government Operations Subcommittee Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. Connolly’s district includes major government IT contractors.

Gordon said he’d like to see more focus on training acquisition staffs in the final version of the bill and questioned whether legislation was too blunt an instrument for large scale management reforms. Many acquisition inefficiencies are also caused by budget uncertainty emanating from Congress, he said.

The final bill should also spell out precisely which types of “commodity IT” services could be managed centrally, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, an industry group.

Homeland Security Department CIO Richard Spires did not endorse the proposal but said the government would benefit from sharing procurement best practices more widely. Spires also did not endorse the proposal for CIO budget authority but said it was “one model to look at.”

VanRoekel said he did not think additional legislation was necessary to reform the IT procurement process during a January hearing that touched on Issa’s proposed bill.

Issa said his bill also will call for the title CIO to be reserved for just one person at each agency. There are 243 CIOs across government now, including 35 at the Transportation Department alone, he said. The excessive use of the title diminishes its authority, he said.

“This is a single point of accountability with the title of chief -- someone who can say ‘I’ve got $6 billion and I’ll be darned if I’ll waste it,’” he said.

Wednesday’s hearing regularly turned to the plight of federal acquisition workers who may face furloughs on Friday if Congress and the White House don’t reach a deal to avoid a slate of automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.

Gordon charged that federal employees are too often scapegoated for acquisition failures, which makes them wary of taking risks to make smarter purchasing decisions.

“They’re scared of getting in trouble for getting something that’s better even though it costs more money,” he said. “We need to change the atmosphere of fear where people don’t feel empowered, they don’t feel trusted.” 

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