Federal IT Procurement Processes Continue to Attract Scrutiny

Ann All
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As I wrote not long ago, federal CIOs are understandably sensitive about the criticism being leveled at government IT. Sixty percent of those responding to a Federal News Radio survey said negative perception of government IT is a bigger problem than actual technology shortcomings, and 80 percent said criticism is hurtful.


I agree that criticism for criticism's sake is hurtful. But I think honest assessments are helpful. I'd put recent remarks by U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, into the latter category. Speaking at a Washington, D.C., IT conference, Cartwright said the Defense Department "is pretty much in the Stone Age as far as IT is concerned."


The biggest issue, says Cartwright in Computerworld coverage of the event, is inflexible proprietary systems that do not integrate with each other. As an illustration, Cartwright mentioned that the Army and the Marines were unable to communicate with each other via radio during the second Gulf War in Iraq. Among Cartwright's comments:

It's crazy, we buy proprietary [and] we don't understand what it is we're buying into. It works great for an application, but then you come to conflict and you spend the rest of your time trying to modify it to actually do what it should do.

Lots of other folks have criticized the federal government's IT procurement processes. Just last week exiting federal CIO Vivek Kundra told the nation's top science advisers that overly complex funding procedures are government IT's biggest problem.


Kundra also suggested creating a single congressional committee to oversee IT expenditures, which might result in agencies sharing services more often or at least using more standardized IT platforms. There are currently more than 12,000 major government IT systems, a number that reinforces Kundra's call for consolidation. While the government maintains some 2,000 data centers, Kundra said he believes that number could be consolidated down to three.


The Computerworld story cites a 2010 House Armed Services Committee report that documented a high IT failure rate at the DoD. Congressional investigators found just 16 percent of the DoD's IT projects are completed on time and on budget, while 31 percent are canceled before completion. The remaining 53 percent miss time and budget targets, with a typical cost overrun of more than 89 percent. According to the report, private sector projects are generally able to deliver capabilities and incrementally improve on initial deliveries on a 12-to-18-month cycle. In contrast, defense IT systems typically take 48-60 months to deliver.


Wow. I can't imagine requirements aren't going to change - perhaps dramatically - during a five-year period.


Federal agencies will have to improve if they hope to take advantage of all the advances in technology, Cartwright said. Noting that soldiers on the battlefield can now receive data via a two-terabyte drive, he said the real challenge is "moving it - it's using it, it's analyzing it, and it's finding competitive advantage in it in ways that nobody else has."


Like their private-sector counterparts, government agencies must figure out how to solve integration and quality issues to leverage all of the data they collect.

Just yesterday I wrote about the Homelessness Analytics Initiative (HAI), a project in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development will combine its data sets with those from the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies, with the aim of creating a predictive model for forecasting homelessness patterns, monitoring shelter performance and addressing issues such as homelessness among veterans.


Officials appear to be aware of shortcomings in the federal procurement process. As Nextgov reports, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy recently told agency acquisition chiefs to consider forming specialized teams comprised of people with deep subject matter knowledge to manage IT purchases. That advice meshes with Kundra's overall IT reform plan, released in December 2010. In it, Kundra mentioned that government contracting officers often are experts in ethics and protocol, but they have limited knowledge about the industries they're working with or the government agencies they're purchasing for.


Agencies including NASA and the National Institutes of Health have already formed expert procurement teams, according to the story.

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