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Fixing IT Acquisition is About Execution, not Just Personnel

According to recent reporting by Federal Times on the state of federal information technology (IT) acquisition and program management, the Government is ill prepared to purchase and manage large scale IT programs due to poorly trained staff, and poor collaboration with industry. Certainly contributing factors, but the issues are much more broad and troubling.

Two independent industry trade groups, the TechAmerica Foundation and the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC), have released reports on ways to improve the troubling state of federal IT programs. The industry groups’ reports were done in advance of the expected Office of Management and Budget (OMB) release this month of the Administration’s plan for reforming IT procurement. Taken together, these two trade group reports provide a valuable roadmap to help improve the abysmal situation, and I hope OMB takes note.
What is important about these reports is that the recommendations have the ability to be implemented relatively quickly, and could have impacts in the short-term. As the reports also note, the laws, policies and procedures already on the books provide plenty of resources and flexibility for implementing the action items. Nonetheless, an important and valuable addition to these reports is the discussion of obstacles and challenges to implementation, along with subsequent action items for overcoming these issues. Many reports, including the recent memo from Dr. Ashton Carter on needed improvements to defense procurement, simply state what is needed without a roadmap on how to get there.
The report focuses on several areas including:
1) Professionalizing Program Management. Due to the constant rotation of program managers (PM), the reports called on a knowledgeable and empowered program manager who sees the project through to completion. The TechAmerica report also called on the establishment of a Program Management Leadership Academy, and enhancing training overall for PMs.
This recommendation focuses on building a bench of qualified PMs that have the tools and resources to be successful. Often, PMs are set up for failure by being assigned programs they simply have no business running. Managing IT programs can be a blood sport, and PMs need to be empowered, fully supported by management, and trained in best practice tools, techniques, and methodologies for managing IT programs along industry standards. Training is vital, but it also needs to focus on requirements, IT, finance, and contracting/acquisition. The cross-functional knowledge is required to ensure holistic program objectives are understood and achieved.
2) Promote Agile/Incremental Development. The TechAmerica report specifically states that agile development is not a cure-all for IT acquisition.
…The iterative, incremental and collaborative processes of agile development will significantly raise the Government’s return on its IT investment. It will do this by engaging with users more effectively, deploying capability more quickly and keeping better pace with rapid advancements in such technologies as cloud computing and software as a service…
The Government simply cannot expect to perform its mission with continued programs that are constantly behind schedule, over budget, and deliver little in terms of results or performance after spending millions in taxpayer funds. It is imperative to deliver smaller increments of capability, focusing scope on what is realistically achievable by closely collaborating between developers and users.
…Chief among the benefits of agile/incremental development are increasing the return on taxpayer investment through faster deployment of capability and reducing rework through faster and more effective interaction with users…
ACT-IAC called for a renewed focus on Governance, which would be used for accountability at the senior leadership level and promote the desperately needed communication that can lead to program success through agile development. It is these best practices that can have significant impacts in the short-term. Advances in technology develop at a much faster rate than the federal acquisition lifecycle can keep up with, creating a capability gap that prevents Government from leveraging innovation and creates a system where Government purchases technologies that are outdated prematurely.
3) Improve Risk Management. The important recommendation is the call for an Independent Risk Review on major IT acquisitions. The report recommends a third party completely independent of the program, such that role is not filled by the program or the contractor executing the program. In essence, the report is calling for an Independent Validation and Verification (IV&V) role, either internal to Government or an outside contractor. This renewed focus on adherence to performance and Governance would go a long way to help ensure proper review cycles where all interested parties are held accountable for success.
4) Enhance Stakeholder Engagement. According to the TechAmerica report:
…The need for better engagement, collaboration and communication between Government and industry was cited by 78% of the Government-experienced IT leaders we interviewed, more than any other topic…
Also like the reports note, the trend recently is to build barriers to communicate and collaborate, effectively taking the Government in the wrong direction. The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) encourages the communication, so why is it not happening? Risk aversion namely. Externally, the Government can use Gov 2.0 platforms for crowd sourcing, such as the Better Buy Project, to solicit user input and allow for outside sources to contribute to openness and transparency in the procurement process. Internally, ensuring end-users have a place at the table in requirements and the development of the program is important to ensuring the end system can meet objectives. The reports also tie the use of agile development as one way of doing this.
…Better communication can improve both the quality of an acquisition document and the quality of the proposed responses. The result will be a smoother acquisition at a lower cost. Better communication can also lead to greater awareness of how technology is being used innovatively in other marketplaces that could vastly improve mission delivery…
Improved acquisition outcomes are possible when industry knows what the mission and needs are of the Government, getting the opportunity to contribute and demonstrate technological capability through effective market research, combined with the Government knowing what their own needs are as well. This is only possible through open communications and partnerships with stakeholders, both internal and external.
5) Requirements. The Achilles heel of Government, the requirements process is one of the fundamental issues that create failing programs at program inception.
…As noted in the previous sections, a lack of communication and collaboration can lead to the development of patchwork requirements – or requirements that cannot be achieved by existing technologies and solutions. Similarly, overly rigid and defined requirements can preclude the agency from taking advantage of innovative solutions.

The Government does not always have a full understanding of how evolving solutions and technologies could benefit an agency’s goals and objectives, or how such solutions can be acquired by, and provisioned to, the Government. A key contributing factor to this development is the perception that federal officials increase the risk of protest due to “pre-selection” or wiring the requirements when they communicate with industry to consider possible alternative technological solutions or capabilities for meeting Government requirements…
Both reports called for increased collaboration and agile development to help control requirements. However, the entire requirements process needs a paradigm shift to leverage these proposed solutions.
Focusing on outcomes and allowing industry to propose innovative solutions to solve Government’s problems is the path to success. Government simply is not prepared, or has the technological acumen, to know what is in its best interest. Instead, it must focus on what it needs to perform its mission. Allow industry to present truly best value, and then manage to results. It is this renewed focus on the disease on procurement failures that can have a major impact on outcomes, but only when leadership understands that business as usual is not an option.
These proposed recommendations can go a long way to helping improve IT acquisition and management. It starts with an understanding where knowledge is housed, work to our strengths, and create real partnerships between Government and industry to stop the cycle of fraud, waste, and abuse that starts with poor requirements, poor management practices, and the inability to execute.

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Brian Sellers

Great article, Jaime. To your first point about building a bench of qualified Federal PM professionals – A well-taught FAC-P/PM program, combining the best of traditional PM discipline with the unique skills required by Federal Program Managers (systems engineering, contracting, life cycle logistics, financial management, etc.) can provide a great foundation for building a more capable acquisition workforce.

As the VP for Operations at the Federal Acquisition Certification Academy, I am admittedly biased toward the value of quality PM education. But all of us at the FAC Academy have been truly gratified to hear our students speak enthusiastically, and even excitedly, about their ability to quickly implement the concepts they learned throughout the FAC-P/PM program and begin to make an impact upon their return to the workplace.

I would be interested to hear your comments (and those of others) about the general level of acceptance and perceived value that the FAC-P/PM program has throughout the Civilian Agencies.

Keep up the great blog posts!