If there’s a silver lining to the HealthCare.gov debacle it’s that tough questions about how the government buys and builds information technology are now suddenly a topic of major and mainstream debate.
Exhibit one: this Wednesday editorial in the New York Times, which calls for smarter IT buying throughout government, agile development processes and more nimble hiring for government technologists. The editorial also calls out the work of Presidential Innovation Fellows, especially the builders of the RFP-EZ simplified contracting site for small software projects.
And exhibit two: President Obama’s call for IT procurement reform before a grassroots advocacy group on Monday.
The failures of the government acquisition system to manage large and sometimes even small-scale IT projects isn’t news to anyone with a passing knowledge of the world of government IT. It’s frustrated nearly every technology-minded intern and new federal employee.
It’s what drove the government’s first two chief information officers, Vivek Kundra and Steven VanRoekel, to re-work government tech contracts at both the project and the portfolio level and it’s what pushed the nation’s second Chief Technology Officer Todd Park to create the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.
It’s also what drove Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., to propose a complete overhaul of IT buying known as the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. FITARA passed the House as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is awaiting action in the Senate.
The moment reminds me of 2007, when the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis that crosses the Mississippi river collapsed, killing 13 people. For months afterward, the nation’s aging infrastructure was debated on TV sets and in bars and coffee shops across the country. The public didn’t become civil engineers then any more than they’ve become software coders now, but it was an issue they cared about, knew enough about to follow and wanted fixed.
Infrastructure reform has largely disappeared from the public debate since then and, if and when HealthCare.gov is operating smoothly, IT reform likely will too. Here’s hoping, though, that Congress and the executive branch take this opportunity to make big and smart reforms while the issue is ripe. Unlike infrastructure reform, IT procurement reform can be done without large, new appropriations. It can also win bipartisan support as FITARA has shown.
As others have pointed out, pretty much any new government program will be dependent on technology to function effectively and the pace of technological development will only increase. Better IT processes would serve government well for years to come no matter who controls the White House and Congress.
For further reading, check out this GovLoop discussion about what’s wrong with procurement and how to fix it.