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Health Care

Congress Embarks on Government IT Reform

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

photo of Clara Ritger
November 18, 2013

In the wake of HealthCare.gov's persistent troubles, the president and members of Congress from both parties voiced support for government information technology procurement reform.

"This is part of a pattern that occurs due to failure to adhere to the private sector's world-class standards for IT production," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., at a House Oversight Committee hearing last week.

Given that the United States federal goverment one of the largest purchasers of IT, making the investment worthwhile ought to be a top concern of lawmakers. In 2012, the U.S. spent approximately $81 billion on federal IT projects, and HealthCare.gov alone received a $630 million allocation.

 

Earlier this year Issa joined hands with Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., to craft the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), which passed the House over the summer but awaits its day in the Senate. Among other provisions, the bill grants chief information officers authority over agency budgets and raises them to the level of presidential appointee, heightening their responsibility over large-scale IT projects.

The Health and Human Services Department and its Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services faced a wave of criticism for its mismanagement of the federal exchange website. In a series of hearings with top HHS and CMS officials, it became clear that functionality and security decisions that resulted in the site blocking hundreds of thousands of users from completing applications for health insurance were made in the lower ranks and not communicated at the top.

FITARA could be the legislation to stop such problems from happening again.

"If FITARA had been law during the development of HealthCare.gov," Connolly said in an email, "President Obama would have been authorized to appoint his own chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services, and this individual would have both served as Secretary Sebelius's primary adviser on IT management, and been empowered to recruit top IT talent and manage critical IT investments, such as HealthCare.gov."

Despite the added prestige of presidential appointment, it will be hard for the government to compete with private sector salaries to attract top IT managers.

"When you rely on contractors—which is common practice in government—you need to possess the core capability within the agency to manage them," said Gwanhoo Lee, an IT professor at American University's Kogod School of Business. "I don't know whether bringing in private sector managers would solve this problem, but I can't imagine that those managers—who would make hundreds of thousands of dollars at places like Google and Facebook—that those individuals are willing to come to the public sector."

Connolly acknowledged that FITARA is only a start, and that the government must do more to open up the contracting process to younger companies, thereby upping competition and attracting a wider swath of talent. Clay Johnson, former presidential innovation fellow and current CEO at The Department of Better Technology—a firm that builds government software—said one way to do that is to allow smaller, more modular purchasing, which would make it easier for smaller businesses to compete for the contracts and reduce the impact when projects go sour.

"If a few fail, at least it's a half million mistake, rather than a half billion," Johnson said.

With the spotlight on HealthCare.gov, Johnson said he thinks more House Democrats will introduce government IT reform initiatives in the coming weeks.

"This is a moment where both parties can agree," he said.

The private sector is jumping on board too. Amazon sent a letter of endorsement to the leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is currently reviewing FITARA.

Whether FITARA will move through the Senate is unclear, but with more proposals on the horizon—and the president's call to action—the debate is far from over.

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