Congress Embarks on Government IT Reform

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 26: Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., speaks with reporters as he leaves the House Republican Conference meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.
National Journal
Clara Ritger
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Clara Ritger
Nov. 18, 2013, 5:03 p.m.

In the wake of Health­’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 Health­ 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 Health­,” 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 Health­”

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 Health­, 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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