Government Buyers Agree: There is No Quick Fix to Federal IT Woes

12/13/2010
By Sandra I. Erwin
It’s become a cliché in Washington that government workers have better technology at home than at the office.
Numerous studies have over the past decade documented the woes of “federal IT,” or information technology: The government procurement system is too slow to capture innovation, billions of dollars are wasted on outdated technology, federal buyers are oblivious to the rapid advances taking place in the commercial industry. And the list goes on.
Concern about the government’s troubles in modernizing IT systems is now bubbling to the surface as cyber-threats grow in sophistication, experts say. There are also increasing worries about mismanagement of the $80 billion federal IT annual budget. The Office of Management and Budgetrecently announced it was canceling or scaling back eight federal IT projects as a result of cost overruns and poor performance.
At the Defense Department, difficulties in upgrading IT systems have beencommonplace. Defense Secretary Robert Gatescanceled several programs last year, and the military services continue to struggle with the modernization oftactical networks. Outdated contracting methods and a “risk averse” procurement culture are keeping the Air Force generations behind in technologies such as wireless communications and mobile networking, saidChief Information Officer Lt. Gen. William Lord.
Government procurement officials admit that, fundamentally, the problem is their lack of familiarity with technology and their failure to stay up to speed on the latest advances.
“You really need people at the cutting edge of this stuff,” said Francis Spampinato, director of contracting and acquisition at the Federal Aviation Administration. “You have to be able to move swiftly,” he said at an industry conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the software firm Compusearch.
“You have to keep on top of things in the IT world,” Spampinato said. Agencies should hire contract specialists “who actually have done IT contracts, special terms and conditions, performance reviews … people who are familiar with IT contracting,” he said.
Dozens of studies by government commissions and think tanks have proposed ways to fix federal IT contracting. None is likely to lead to major improvements, however, because government buyers live in a culture that is incompatible with the fast-paced tech industry, officials said.
“We’ll never buy that stuff well,” said Elliott Branch, executive director of acquisition and logistics management at the Department of the Navy. “The government, culturally, has no sense of play around IT,” he said. Federal buyers generally lack curiosity about what’s out there and how it works, he noted. One reason for that are rigid procurement rules. “We don’t have the flexibility in our system to allow brighter folks to see what’s out there and bring it to our enterprise,” said Branch. “Until we stop trying to stop making mistakes with IT and embrace the way IT is developed and used in this country, we’ll never do this well. And we haven’t done this well.”
To bring government IT into the 21st century would require more expertise and also smarter attitudes about IT contracting, said Spampinato. “There is constant tension between oversight and efficiency,” he said. At every agency, there are bureaucrats who get involved throughout the contracting process — without adding any value and causing unnecessary delays, he said. “People want to touch every contract. They hold it up for weeks, months.”
Soraya Correa, director of the office of procurement operations at the Department of Homeland Security, agreed that IT purchasing officials have a duty to be informed about the state of the market. “Let’s do market research, learn about companies, so we’re smarter about how we buy,” she said. “Let’s adapt to the products that industry sells. Let’s work with end users to understand their needs so we can communicate that with industry.”
Last week, federal CIO Vivek Kundra released a25-point plan to reform federal IT acquisition. During aWhite House forum, he said the Obama administration wants IT project managers to acquire private-sector expertise and to learn how to work better with high-tech start-ups.

Topics: Infotech

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