Why acquisition reforms fall short

After two decades of good intentions, it's time for an enterprise strategy for IT acquisition and management.

Complexity (Shutterstock image)

The Obama administration’s early Office of Management and Budget initiatives and the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act now being implemented all have been well-intentioned, but none has offered an over-arching IT strategy.

One of the main reasons that the Clinger-Cohen Act failed to rein in waste, and why all the intervening reform efforts have had only limited impact, is the absence of an enterprise organizational design for IT acquisition and management. There are guidelines, regulations and initiatives, but there is no centralized, integrated strategy supported by a corresponding organizational structure. The government has been intensely fragmented when it comes to IT acquisition.

Read in a vacuum, the pre-2015 OMB initiatives, memorialized by FITARA, are hard to criticize. Yet these well-meaning and hand-crafted initiatives have been trapped within a dysfunctional structure. The “25-Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management” of 2010 was less a strategy than a tactical assault. It articulated 25 concrete steps to try to achieve particular short-term outcomes.

Likewise, 2012’s effort, “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People,” addressed the need to ensure that the systems managing public data were designed to maximize the public’s ability to use the data. Again, it was a component of a strategy, not an acquisition design.

Since Clinger-Cohen, most of the initiatives have been tantamount to designing beautiful windows and doors for a house that sits on a faulty foundation.

Government is not really an enterprise

At the core of the strategy vacuum is the oft-ignored reality that the government does not operate like a conventional enterprise. Rather, the government “manages” its IT like a holding company with a portfolio of many disparate assets. The current structural approach is to treat the agencies as independent entities with the ability to determine their own IT paths, guided by maxims such as “cloud first” and coupled with oversight at the budgetary level from OMB.

That approach lacks cohesion and inhibits the ability to develop and exploit best practices. It has been an ad hoc structure devoid of an enterprise strategy. The fragmentation also hinders the ability to develop valued expertise or deploy any of the various continuous improvement methodologies that have been so useful for the private sector.

The less-than-stellar results we’ve seen, unfortunately, are exactly what one would expect from the government’s current fragmented organizational structure. Imagine Walmart funding individual IT investments to be run independently and in parallel by its inventory, finance, sales, marketing and human resources departments — and then being surprised to learn they all chose different software systems to do similar things.

Clinger-Cohen inadvertently supported that approach, as have all the intervening initiatives and attempts at reform. All the efforts have stayed within the four walls of the dysfunctional fragmented structure and, therefore, have failed to produce significant improvements.

Back in 1996, centralized command and control lost its appeal with the Brooks Act’s repeal because there was an impression that the General Services Administration’s centralized IT procurement authority was a box-checking exercise that added no value. But the experience of the Brooks Act should not be dispositive. There was no aligned strategy under that law, and the same lack of alignment continues to plague the government’s IT estate today.

When it comes to IT, the government would be wise to move beyond the holding company mentality. The citizenry has much at stake. It has a right to expect the success of the entire “enterprise” portfolio, not just that select individual agencies or sub-agencies can economically deploy IT. William Cohen’s iconic words, first published in the “Computer Chaos” report in 1994, still resonate: “Weak oversight…[has] led to the American taxpayers not getting their money’s worth [on IT expenditures]. Effective management and control over such a significant portion of the budget is seriously lacking, and the federal government’s problems with buying computers [are] widespread.”

Then-Commerce Department CIO Roger Baker’s 2002 assessment, shared at the hearings leading up to the E-Government Act, is also still relevant. “There is no cohesive strategy, there are too many points of control…caused by ad hoc infrastructure,” Baker said. “We need somebody with the charter to look at federal government IT as an enterprise issue.”

A glimmer of hope?

On Dec. 4, 2014, Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Anne Rung issued a memo calling for, among other things, enterprisewide vendor management. In that memo, Rung wrote: “Relationships with vendors are still managed individually across thousands of procurement units, which makes it challenging for both the acquisition workforce and the vendor community to drive improved outcomes. Mirroring other governments and industry, who manage industry relationships as a single enterprise, OFPP will, within 90 days of the date of this memorandum, develop a plan to recruit the federal government’s first vendor manager for top IT commercial contractors.”

That is a promising start! Since then, OMB and GSA have publicly announced a plan to deploy category management disciplines across IT product lines in order to better serve the entire government. This top-down strategy, if well executed, could put in place the first building blocks for a centralized view of the government’s IT estate. It’s also consistent with Congress’ intuitive desire, represented in the early FITARA drafts and hearings, to put it all back together — to gain more centralized control — and to develop an enterprise IT strategy that results in an organizational structure for improved outcomes.

Let’s keep our collective fingers crossed that this renewed interest in a governmentwide, enterprise approach to IT — including industry best practices such as category management — continues to gain momentum. If it truly takes hold, then transformative enterprise-oriented change could finally occur.

This essay is excerpted from “Reforming IT Acquisition Reform,” Garland’s thesis for a master of laws degree in government procurement at George Washington University Law School.