Moderator Trey Hodgkins (far left) and panelists from left to right: Richard Beutel, Kevin Cummins, Aaron Wasserman and Angela Styles.
“Taxpayers deserve a government that harnesses technology to better serve the people.” I would be surprised if anyone disagreed with this profound statement from former Missouri governor Matt Blunt. Citizens expect their government to spend their hard earned money wisely to provide them with the services they need. This is especially true in regards to information technologies, which have become a $500 billion industry over the past fifty years.
The rapidly evolving technological landscape, however, has government officials grappling with the following question: how do we transform the way government acquires technology and brings IT projects to fruition in the most economic way possible?
Yesterday, experts from the federal government convened at Amazon Web Services’ Government, Education and Nonprofits Symposium to discuss the challenges in federal IT acquisition and potential strategies to facilitate the process. Titled “Federal IT Reform: Enabling the Transition to Cloud Computing to Save Taxpayer Dollars,” the forum panelists included:
- Richard Beutel, House Committee on Government Reform
- Kevin Cummins, Office of Senator Tom Udall
- Aaron Wasserman, Office of Congressman Derek Kilmer
- Angela B. Styles, Crowell and Moring
All of the panelists agreed that the federal government has a lot of work ahead of itself. Waste and redundancy plague federal IT programs, costing precious workforce time and taxpayer money. Our government spends more than $81 billion per year on IT investments, Beutel noted, but nearly 70 percent of that is spent on maintaining legacy systems, outdated datasets and incompatible records.
What can be done to get federal IT back on track? Based on their own expertise, the panelists recommended the following strategies:
- Implement legislation. Beutel pointed out that one of the main issues in the government IT sector is the lack of authority given to agency CIOs. Information officers are often left without a seat at the table. The recent Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA, H.R. 1232) aims to fix that problem. If passed, the bill will restore authority to the CIOs in regards to an agency’s IT budget and personnel management. In addition, the CIO will report directly to the agency head, securing closer authoritative ties. FITARA has been passed by the House three times, but has yet to make it through the Senate (it is being voted on today!).
Cummins echoed many of Beutel’s recommendations and highlighted the importance of having Congress involved. “IT reform is something that every member of Congress needs to be engaged in,” Cummins stated. Congress can play an influential role in program oversight and encouraging IT officials to invest in the newest – and most cost effective – IT solutions such as the cloud.
- Reevaluate IT standards and consider commercial solutions. Wasserman tied in his experience working with the Department of Defense (DoD) to discuss the importance of weighing all of the options when implementing a new IT solution. In fiscal year 2012, the DoD was tasked with integrating cloud-computing solutions. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) took over responsibility for the project and essentially halted progress. Instead of going forward with market research to find the best product, the agency mulled over the limitations of government solutions.
“The government was trying to adopt a government solution,” Wasserman said. “If a commercial product is adequate and meets requirements, then it should be the chosen solution.” Wasserman’s plea refers to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 12, which states that agencies shall conduct market research and acquire commercial items that meet government standards when available. Agencies should take a step back, test government and commercial solutions side by side and determine which product best fits organizational needs and budgets.
- Loosen government contractor requirements. Styles piggybacked Wasserman’s concerns, but focused on a contractor’s perspective of federal IT procurement. “There is this extraordinary gulf between where the government is and how they’re buying and managing IT, and where the industry is,” she stated. This chasm deters contractors from taking up government projects. “They assess the risk and tend to walk away,” Styles noted.
The government needs to use tactical discretion when doing business with IT contractors. Instead of insisting on black letter terms and conditions, the government should look to FAR Part 12 and use flexibility to exempt contractors from certain stipulations that strangle innovation. “Do we really have to put all these requirements on these tech companies when we really need them?” Styles probed. Contractors not only offer advanced technologies, but also potential cost savings.
Reforming the federal IT procurement and acquisition processes is an uphill battle. As Cummins iterated, “it will never be as easy as being a Silicon Valley start-up,” but renovating the way the government handles IT is a necessary endeavor. Introducing legislation, conducting market research and relaxing contractor conditions are all tactful strategies to simplify and accelerate IT reform. Not only does smoother IT roll out make the government run more efficiently, but it saves valuable citizen tax dollars.
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