The Rise of the Technocrat: Driving Change and Delivering Results for Federal IT Acquisition

It’s no secret that the federal acquisition system for IT is broken. The attempts at wholesale reform driven by Congress, like FITARA, have looked good on paper, but have largely failed when agencies have attempted to put them into practice. Instead of seeing a constant cycle of improvement, what has happened is that the majority of agencies continue to struggle.  In fact, their grades actually fall, rather than demonstrate any upward momentum and improvement. Even the FITARA program darling, USAID, suffered a grade drop from an A+ to an A- in the November scorecard rating.

It would be all too easy to point the finger at federal IT leaders and managers and attribute the on-going malaise to their unwillingness to drive change. However, this would be both unfair and unwise. Federal IT leaders are desperate to find ways to improve the acquisition process to drive change and deliver results not only for themselves and the scorecard overlords, but for all mission stakeholders and constituents.

In searching for a solution to this issue, I’d like to suggest that we need to upend not only the tools available to federal agencies, but also take a close look at the culture that surrounds acquisition and use what we learn here to reform the processes.

Let’s start with the FITARA scorecard. The overall goal of the scorecard – to provide guidance, benchmarks, and measures of success to agencies to avoid duplicative purchases and unnecessary investments in technology – is a definitely a good goal. Without any visibility, agencies were, indeed, acquiring redundant and duplicative IT resources. From multiple instances of the same software, to portfolio duplication, there was no doubt that agencies needed to develop a better accounting system for their acquisitions.

However, while FITARA attacks one element of much needed acquisition reform, that is, whether or not a purchase is even needed, the larger failure in IT acquisition has to do with the length of the procurement cycle, which often renders an acquisition redundant before it is even deployed. This issue, while always of importance has assumed new significance as agencies get ready to modernize legacy infrastructure under the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT Act).  The key for agencies here is to be able to fix not only the impact of legacy systems, but also future-proof their agency by putting in place agile acquisition cycles.

Right now we’re seeing a few different future-proofing mechanisms being put into place by agencies. Code-a-thons and hack-a-thons are helping agencies tackle immediate problems like security vulnerability and social crises.  Meanwhile, DISA has turned to OTA – Other Transaction Authorities – to drive innovation and engage private sector companies that have solutions that meet the challenges the agency is facing now, while other agencies are re-examining the idea of reverse industry days to bring together industry and government to focus on mission-critical problems.

Each of these solutions brings improvement to the acquisition system, but the nature of these programs seems to re-introduce the very problems that Congress and IT leaders are looking to solve via FITARA. They are ad hoc workarounds that, while they might solve immediate problems, have the potential to create silos and fail to integrate into the broader vision and architecture of the agency. Not to mention leaving some potentially innovative solutions, as well as key mission problems that are less newsworthy, out in the proverbial cold.

What I’d like to suggest as a longer term solution to this situation is this: that agencies develop an acquisition process that’s focused on outcomes and driven by technical requirements to get to that outcome. In essence, the laborious RFP process – where months turn into years, the acquisition process is derailed, and the seeds of IT obsolescence are sown – is done away with.

In its place I would like to see an RFI process.  True to its name this would entail  a brief outlining of requirements married with a clear definition of outcomes, that gets technical teams on both sides focused on the problem at hand as defined by the agency, averts scope creep, contract award protests, and integrates into the agencies overall plan.

While we all wish that every agency acquisition could be in the same time frame as the 4 month turnaround the FBI had to acquire CODIS after September 11th, 2001, the unique external circumstances that drove that process are, thankfully, unlikely, to collide again.

What the CODIS example tells us is that it is possible for the federal government to be agile and identify strong solutions that solve the mission-critical challenges at hand. What we need to find is the driver of that change, while some agency leaders are using cyberas that hook, federal CIOs and senior leadership would be well served to use digital transformation to drive acquisition reform to deliver to agency stakeholders and citizens the services they need from government in 2018.

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