Preventing the Next Obamacare Tech Fail

Firing CGI Federal treats a symptom and does nothing for the problem. So what would a real solution look like?

Rocky rollout:
Sophie Novack and Dustin Volz
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Sophie Novack Dustin Volz
Jan. 16, 2014, midnight

A head has rolled, but the body re­mains broken.

In ter­min­at­ing CGI Fed­er­al’s role in Health­, Pres­id­ent Obama fi­nally “fired” one of the parties re­spons­ible for Obama­care’s faulty web­site. That may ap­pease the chor­us of those call­ing on Obama to hold someone “ac­count­able,” but it does noth­ing to fix the un­der­ly­ing prob­lem: the sys­tem for se­lect­ing private con­tract­ors that picked CGI Fed­er­al in the first place.

“The worst thing we can do is de­clare vic­tory and go home,” said Stan So­lo­way, pres­id­ent and CEO of the Pro­fes­sion­al Ser­vices Coun­cil. “We may or may not have helped Health­, but we’ve done noth­ing to fix the sys­tem­ic is­sue.”

IT ex­perts say that pre­vent­ing the next Health­ would re­quire a top-to-bot­tom over­haul of the way the gov­ern­ment picks and man­ages con­tract­ors, and that won’t be easy. Such re­form would re­quire bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al co­ordin­a­tion from a Con­gress that fre­quently fails to pass even the most straight­for­ward bills; and a sig­ni­fic­ant shift in cul­ture that brings gov­ern­ment man­age­ment of IT in line with rap­idly de­vel­op­ing tech­no­logy.

So what would it take to con­nect the best firms with the biggest fed­er­al con­tracts? Ad­voc­ates in the field identi­fy three ma­jor re­forms.

Step 1: Change who calls the shots

Gov­ern­ment needs to cre­ate a cent­ral­ized of­fice for de­velopers and de­sign­ers to test IT and re­spond to prob­lems as they sur­face, said Clay John­son, an IT-re­form cru­sader and former pres­id­en­tial in­nov­a­tion fel­low.

Such a ded­ic­ated team of tech-lit­er­ate people could com­mu­nic­ate with con­tract­ors dir­ectly about a pro­ject’s pro­gress and chal­lenges, help solve them, and, most im­port­antly, coun­sel the gov­ern­ment on which groups should be awar­ded con­tracts in the first place.

“There are plenty of people in­side of gov­ern­ment who know tech­no­logy and are really good with tech­no­logy,” John­son said. “But the prob­lem is that those people don’t have a lot of power on how these pur­chas­ing de­cisions get made.”

Step 2: A more trans­par­ent bid­ding pro­cess

Pro­cure­ment-re­form ad­voc­ates ad­di­tion­ally want to see con­tract­ing of­ficers make bids for IT con­tracts a more open pro­cess, where any­one — large con­sult­ing be­hemoths or in­nov­at­ive start-ups — can ap­ply for the right to do busi­ness. This seems like an easy fix, but the reas­on bid­ding wars are of­ten lim­ited is be­cause of a no-risk en­vir­on­ment for con­tract protests, in which losers can file a pe­ti­tion with the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice against a win­ning con­tract even if their com­plaints are en­tirely mer­it­less.

John­son fa­vors im­ple­ment­ing “an NFL yel­low-flag rule” that would lim­it the num­ber of protests a po­ten­tial con­tract­or could file in any giv­en year. He also wants to ease the reg­u­lat­ory hurdles a com­pany needs to clear be­fore it can even be con­sidered a gov­ern­ment con­tract­or, as the cur­rent sys­tem in­centiv­izes bur­eau­crat­ic flu­ency over skills and po­ten­tial.

Step 3: Com­pet­it­ive pay for top tal­ent

Pro­cure­ment re­form re­quires bet­ter com­pens­a­tion for con­tract of­ficers, who could eas­ily find much high­er wages work­ing in places like Sil­ic­on Val­ley — where the av­er­age de­veloper hauled in $118,900 in 2012, ac­cord­ing to a study by a Bay Area tech­nic­al-re­cruit­ment firm. That’s tens of thou­sands of dol­lars more than what sim­il­ar jobs in gov­ern­ment can of­fer, ac­cord­ing to data tracked by the Of­fice of Per­son­nel Man­age­ment, Glass­, and oth­ers. Mon­et­ary in­cent­ives for suc­cess­ful pro­jects and in­vest­ments in train­ing work­shops for of­ficers are fre­quently-floated solu­tions.

So what’s stand­ing in the way?

Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans gen­er­ally agree on the need for these kinds of re­forms, and the Health­ dis­aster ad­ded pres­sure to ac­cel­er­ate le­gis­la­tion that would pre­vent a sim­il­ar tech de­bacle from hap­pen­ing again. Yet a bi­par­tis­an bill that had mo­mentum at the end of last year has once again hit a wall in Con­gress.

The Fed­er­al In­form­a­tion Tech­no­logy Ac­quis­i­tion Re­form Act (FIT­ARA), co­sponsored by Reps. Dar­rell Issa, R-Cal­if., and Ger­ald Con­nolly, D-Va., would ad­dress some, but not all, of the con­cerns raised by pro­cure­ment-re­form agit­at­ors. The bill was passed in the House in June of last year, and was tacked on as an amend­ment to the Sen­ate’s an­nu­al de­fense reau­thor­iz­a­tion bill be­fore be­ing stripped off in Decem­ber. FIT­ARA — which would cre­ate an of­fice to co­ordin­ate IT product ac­quis­i­tion, boost au­thor­ity of the Chief In­form­a­tion Of­ficers Coun­cil, re­strain waste­ful spend­ing on IT ac­quis­i­tions, and re­quire agen­cies to more thor­oughly track and re­port their IT is­sues — is cur­rently lan­guish­ing in the Sen­ate Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee.

A ma­jor ele­ment of FIT­ARA in­volves con­sol­id­at­ing au­thor­ity in a cent­ral chief in­form­a­tion of­ficer, which sup­port­ers say would have pre­ven­ted, or at least quelled, the man­age­ment is­sues that plagued the im­ple­ment­a­tion of the Af­ford­able Care Act. “The [Health­] rol­lout didn’t have a pro­ject dir­ect­or,” Con­nolly said. “FIT­ARA ad­dresses that and chooses one per­son called CIO with the re­spons­ib­il­ity, ac­count­ab­il­ity, and flex­ib­il­ity of de­cision-mak­ing.”

The re­form meas­ures in­cluded in FIT­ARA have broad sup­port from both parties, both cham­bers, and the pres­id­ent, yet it seems am­bi­val­ence — not op­pos­i­tion — got in the way. Con­nolly said he is still op­tim­ist­ic that the bill will pass in the near fu­ture.

Yet the Sen­ate re­mains stuck, at least for the mo­ment. While the bill has passed eas­ily in the House, Con­nolly pre­dicts it will go through sev­er­al it­er­a­tions in the up­per cham­ber.

Even FIT­ARA’s sup­port­ers say the bill may not ac­com­plish everything, but it’s a start. “Fed­er­al IT re­form is an in­cred­ibly large is­sue,” said Caitlin Car­roll, a spokes­wo­man for Rep. Issa. “There are al­ways more things we could be do­ing; for now it’s a good step in the right dir­ec­tion.”

In the mean­time, there is little reas­on to ex­pect a change in how IT con­tracts are de­term­ined. Due to the tight time frame to build the re­mainder of the on­line sys­tem, the Cen­ters for Medi­care and Medi­caid Ser­vices used an “ex­ped­ited pro­cure­ment pro­cess” in their hir­ing of Ac­cen­ture, in ac­cord­ance with Fed­er­al Ac­quis­i­tion Reg­u­la­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to CMS of­fi­cials, this in­ter­im ap­proach lasts 12 months, and the agency ex­pects to con­duct a “full and open com­pet­it­ive pro­cess” dur­ing that time. The web­site could get a third change in lead­er­ship in its first year and a half.

CMS de­clined to com­ment on how man­age­ment or con­tract­or changes fit in­to the lar­ger goal of fed­er­al IT pro­cure­ment re­form, and it seems the two are largely sep­ar­ate, at least un­til more sus­tain­able changes are made.

“I fo­cus less on the con­tract­or chosen — that’s one is­sue. But the abil­ity of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to man­age whatever con­tract­or it chooses? That’s what’s want­ing,” Con­nolly said. “In­tern­ally, we need re­form. We need to step up our game.”

What We're Following See More »
Is McMullin Building the GOP in Exile?
52 minutes ago

Evan McMullin, the independent conservative candidate who may win his home state of Utah, is quietly planning to turn his candidacy into a broader movement for principled conservatism. He tells BuzzFeed he's "skeptical" that the Republican party can reform itself "within a generation" and that the party's internal "disease" can't be cured via "the existing infrastructure.” The ex-CIA employee and Capitol Hill staffer says, “I have seen and worked with a lot of very courageous people in my time [but] I have seen a remarkable display of cowardice over the last couple of months in our leaders.” McMullin's team has assembled organizations in the 11 states where he's on the ballot, and adviser Rick Wilson says "there’s actually a very vibrant market for our message in the urban northeast and in parts of the south."

Clinton Up 9 in USA Today Poll; Up 3 According to Fox
1 hours ago

A new USA Today/Suffolk University poll finds Clinton leads Trump by 9 points nationwide, 47% to 38%. A Fox News national poll has Clinton up just three points, 44% to 41% over Trump.

Too Many Potential Enrollees Paying Obamacare Penalties Instead
2 hours ago

One of the main reasons for the recent Obamacare premium hikes is that many potential enrollees have simply decided to pay the tax penalty for remaining uninsured, rather than pay for insurance. More than 8 million people paid the penalty in 2014, and preliminary numbers for 2015 suggest that the number approaches 6 million. "For the young and healthy who are badly needed to make the exchanges work, it is sometimes cheaper to pay the Internal Revenue Service than an insurance company charging large premiums, with huge deductibles."

Cruz: Eight Justices Could Be an Ongoing Situation
3 hours ago

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said that "there was “precedent” for a Supreme Court with fewer than nine justices—appearing to suggest that the blockade on nominee Merrick Garland could last past the election." Speaking to reporters in Colorado, Cruz said: "I would note, just recently, that Justice Breyer observed that the vacancy is not impacting the ability of the court to do its job. That’s a debate that we are going to have.”

Chaffetz Also Caves, Says He’ll Vote Trump
5 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.