IT acquisition reform's time is now

Promising examples abound, but real leadership focus is needed to achieve meaningful digital government services and security.

Shutterstock images (by Ingka D. Jiw and Oberon): ballot box, budget/costs concept.

I recently testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on actions the government could take to modernize its IT acquisition process. The hearing covered a lot of ground, but much of the discussion focused on how much of the IT budget goes to operating and maintaining legacy systems and on ideas to significantly improve federal acquisition.

Since that hearing, we’ve already seen some progress. Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) introduced the Modernizing Government Technology Act of 2017, which would authorize new funding mechanisms for agencies that will result in long-term savings, less duplication of effort and systems designed with cybersecurity in mind. As I stated in a letter to Hurd and Kelly, the MGT Act will give agencies the flexibility and funding resources they need to modernize legacy systems while taking advantage of governmentwide resources.

I was pleased to see that House lawmakers passed the bill, and I’m optimistic the Senate companion bill will advance, too. There is also good alignment between the MGT Act, the recent cybersecurity executive order, the Trump administration’s budget proposal and the objectives of the recently established American Technology Council. Each recognizes that modernization, risk-managed governance and shared services are foundational to achieving meaningful digital government services and security.

Although the broader acquisition system is badly in need of significant overhaul, there are some good initiatives that can build momentum for a modern digital government. Language in the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act requiring the development of IT acquisition cadres within agencies is helpful. The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act seeks to limit the Defense Department’s reliance on lowest price, technically acceptable for professional and IT services — an approach that should be expanded governmentwide.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security’s Procurement Innovation Lab and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Buyers Club are excellent examples of forward-looking solutions that encourage innovation.

A few examples, however, are not enough. Urgent leadership focus is needed to deliver broad and comprehensive IT acquisition reform that is aligned with positive outcomes for our citizens. Recommendations from me and the other hearing panelists covered a broad spectrum, with some urging a complete overhaul and others calling for the proliferation of best practices and cultural change.

And with agency transformation plans under development, the emergence of a draft defense acquisition reform bill from Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), insight into the Section 809 Panel’s findings at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing and the release of the Cloud Center of Excellence’s guidance on buying cloud services, there’s likely to be much more to discuss.

So what are the critical success factors federal agencies should consider as they seek to modernize IT and reform the acquisition system? I suggest:

  1. Foster communication and collaboration through improved governance — within government and with industry partners.
  2. Institutionalize agile acquisition methods as the default, along with the use of statements of objectives and the adoption of standard innovation templates in solicitations to incentivize new ideas.
  3. Accelerate key leadership appointments for open positions to provide executive sponsorship of high-priority initiatives.
  4. Increase leadership commitment to acquisition and IT workforce training initiatives and the establishment of procurement innovation labs at every agency.
  5. Actively engage key industry organizations to encourage collaborative efforts between government and industry to adopt IT acquisition best practices from the government and the private sector.

Undoubtedly there are others, and I would urge you to join the conversation.