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IT Reform Should Focus More on Outcomes Than Tactics, VanRoekel Says

Caitlin Fairchild/

With information technology evolving faster than laws governing federal contracting, legislation to reform how government buys and builds IT should focus more on results than on specific methods of achieving them, the federal chief information officer told lawmakers Thursday.

We should be thinking about "what kinds of outcomes we’re trying to drive versus what are the tactical ways we’re going to get these,” federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, where panelists discussed the most successful approaches to IT contracting.

“Many of the best practices you see here are really about comprehensive management, and that’s probably the hardest thing to legislate,” he said.

VanRoekel on Wednesday issued 2014 guidance for PortfolioStat, an initiative launched in 2012 to help agencies assess how they’re managing their IT portfolios. The latest memo asks agencies to build on previous efforts to gauge and report key performance indicators, with a new focus on “high impact” investments -- guidance VanRoekel cited as an example of what he’s done to encourage agencies to develop IT projects incrementally.

VanRoekel described for lawmakers on Thursday a “disconnect between appropriators and authorizers” in IT reform legislation passed earlier this year by the House. Another panelist, Karen Evans, a former IT administrator at the Office of Management and Budget, cited that same disconnect as an obstacle to incremental -- or agile -- IT development.

“Government people are thinking in two- to three-year increments, because that’s the way the appropriations process works,” she said. “What’s critical is being able to break it down into smaller increments and then use the tools that OMB has available” to draw up clear spending and implementation plans so managers can be held accountable for making or missing milestones.

The failed launch of the website last October highlighted the need to update and reform the federal IT acquisition framework. A key criticism of that project was that it was not rolled out incrementally, so the extent of the site's problems were not apparent until after launch. That site managed a comeback, helping a good portion of some 8 million consumers enroll in Obamacare health plans by April, but only thanks to a great deal of effort.

“Most government IT projects do not get the type of response and immediate attention that we saw with -- a team of experts rushing in to try to set things straight,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the committee said. “Rather, what typically happens is we continue to sink more money into these programs as they sputter along.”

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