IT Subcommittee to Focus on Buying Better Tech Faster

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas

Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas J. Scott Applewhite//AP

“It’s time we align best practices in government with industry in acquisition,” Rep. Will Hurd said.

In its first session of 2017, the House Oversight Subcommittee on Information Technology convened Tuesday to address an issue it has discussed frequently over the past few years: IT acquisition.

The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, rehashed a greatest hits album of acquisition issues facing the federal government and delivered a statement of intent for what appears to be one of the few true bipartisan efforts in the early days of a new Congress and administration.

Hurd and subcommittee ranking member Robin Kelly, D-Ill., addressed the importance of replacing and securing the government’s legacy technology—including decades-old systems that provide integral services to citizens—and cutting billions of dollars wasted annually on overblown IT projects.

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“It’s time we align best practices in government with industry in acquisition,” Hurd said.

Government buys of technology begin and end with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, and at more than 2,000 pages and growing, it’s far from light reading. Several agencies also have individual acquisition guidelines to boot. During his opening remarks, Hurd acknowledged how the burdensome nature of acquisition regulation can deter new and innovative companies from doing business with the government.

Ten years ago, Hurd said, more than a quarter of new vendors awarded contracts in government were new. Today, first-timers only make up 13 percent of contract holders.

“A quick no is better than a torturous yes,” said Deidre Lee, who chairs Defense Acquisition University’s Section 809 Panel. The panel is tasked with compiling recommendations to improve how the Defense Department purchases weapons systems and information technology.

Lee said time is critical for tech deployments, be they weapons, communications or IT systems.

Companies in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs see government as a tough customer. Many would rather invest their time and money in commercial entities, which tend to make decisions quicker. Time to market becomes incredibly important when rival nation-states increase their technological capabilities, Lee said.

“The time is now,” Lee said. “We are blocking our own ability to reach technology.”

The subcommittee also hit on chief information officer authority (or lack thereof), the need for more incremental development and how government ought to go about recruiting and retaining the top technical talent.

Dave Powner, director of IT management issues for the Government Accountability Office, said “two-thirds of CIOs in governments still don’t have the authority to cancel” troubled programs or projects. More than half of the CIOs at the 24 CFO Act agencies “do not have complete authority over IT acquisitions,” either. In other words, despite Congress’ efforts imbuing CIOs with those authorities in the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, the buck doesn’t stop with CIOs in tech investments.

In response, Hurd said the subcommittee, or the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee itself, would be calling “CIOs, chief financial officers and agency heads” to testify in future hearings.

President Donald Trump’s executive order directing agency heads to identify opportunities to eliminate waste and his statements that secretaries own cybersecurity within their agencies give the committee extra horsepower in compelling secretaries to Capitol Hill.

Pressed by legislators, Powner said it was “unacceptable” only 60 percent of agencies rely on incremental development of IT projects. Progress on this front has stalled, he said, in part because only three agencies follow FITARA’s guidance and force CIOs to sign off on incremental development. Congress, Powner said, “needs to push OMB” to “formalize this process” across the executive branch.

Kelly called on the new administration to appoint an Office of Personnel Management director and U.S. CIO soon because of the importance both positions play in ensuring security and tech guidance across agencies. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., questioned the impact of the new administration’s hiring freeze would have on the government securing qualified IT personnel.

Connolly highlighted the irony in enacting a hiring freeze “when even the private sector reports hiring challenges of IT professionals and cyber professionals” and said the government instead “needs to be bulking up” its technical workforce. Connolly also said he’d welcome a chance for the committee to meet with Jared Kushner, who is to head the newly announced White House Office of American Innovation.

“If we can sit down with him and talk with him about his goals and our goals, we welcome that,” Connolly said.