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Commentary: Government Purchasing Power Should Encourage Innovation


In an era when our federal government must find ways to do more with less, Congress is right to focus on how our government buys and uses technology. Today, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing to discuss major pending reforms that would revitalize federal information technology procurement and inject a much-needed spark into American innovation.

Rep. Darrell Issa’s Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) proposes four major reforms: It restructures federal IT management to empower departmental chief information officers; embraces open-source software; pushes cloud computing and data-center consolidation; and creates a “center of excellence” as a way to consolidate commodity IT purchases. It almost goes far enough.

FITARA represents significant change. Much of it, including cutting waste in the $81 billion federal IT budget, makes sense and fits today’s rapidly changing technology landscape of secure cloud computing and mobility. The U.S. government stands as the largest buyer of technology in the world today -- granting it Customer One status. With FITARA, Congress would have the opportunity to leverage this status in a way that encourages innovation and entrepreneurship by positioning the government as a cutting-edge consumer of the latest and best the tech world has to offer.

Procurement policy can direct Uncle Sam’s massive buying power in support of American technology and innovation. In so doing, it enables government to access the most advanced computing and communications products and services to execute its many and varied missions.

The government has successfully encouraged innovation before, and dramatically so. The decision to open what had been a government-only communication medium -- the Internet -- to the public stands as the gold-medal winner. This decision has changed how billions of people communicate and receive information. 

Now, Congress needs to add another purpose to FITARA’s “findings and purposes” section and a then a chapter on how to implement it. The “purpose” would make the case for innovation as a factor in federal IT acquisition. The implementation chapter could establish a new evaluation factor, the innovation strategy evaluation factor. To be effective, the ISEF would require a more empowered acquisition structure and a more empowered departmental IT acquisition executive. FITARA’s current provisions to restructure information technology management and the federal CIO structure could be expanded to include IT acquisition and IT acquisition executives.  

Empowered acquisition executives could review and evaluate ISEF submissions by companies responding to federal IT procurements. Given authority under prescribed circumstances, they could temporarily relax the many government-required certifications that today inhibit new product introductions. Companies then could be encouraged to provide innovative alternatives to all or parts of IT requests for proposal through an ISEF section. 

An ISEF procurement section should require:

  • Identification of new technologies;
  • Identification of the companies behind these technologies; and
  • That certification by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense or other organizations may be temporarily waived and that a path to achieving such required certifications over specified timeframes is established.

Of course, today’s risk-averse, high-cost IT acquisition matrix has produced a workforce that tends to match this matrix in its avoidance of risk. Ensuring use of an ISEF section by acquisition officials is central to it having any appreciable impact. And it presents a great challenge.

However, Chairman Issa needs to look no further than his own House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for the mechanism to cultivate its adoption. The government’s bedrock cybersecurity law, the Federal Information Security Management Act,  works today because of the accountability process embedded in the law. Under FISMA, agency and departmental inspectors general, together with the Government Accountability Office, report to Office of Management and Budget on agency FISMA compliance. Under former Chairman Tom Davis, the committee issued annual report cards – grades for agency FISMA performance. A similar process could be effective in seeking compliance to any IT procurement evaluation process that might seek to encourage innovation.

Innovation in federal IT procurement could jump-start new approaches and solutions. It should at least be considered as Congress tackles federal IT procurement policy. Chairman Issa has secured rare bipartisan support in his effort to reform government technology acquisition. He should use this support and recognize in his initiative the power of the government as Customer One to affect American technology innovation in the broader economy.

If our nation is to remain the world’s leader in innovation, we can and should use the nation’s biggest customer to encourage and demand it.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)® the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books “Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses(William Morrow, 2013) andThe Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream(Beaufort Books, 2011). Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.

Don Upson is a partner at UpsonVito. His government career includes service as Virginia's first Secretary of Technology and as Republican staff director of the House Government Operations Committee (now the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform).

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