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Federal IT Reform: Just Getting Started

By John K. Higgins
Jan 7, 2015 7:33 AM PT

Information technology providers who market to the federal government got some holiday cheer as the U.S. Congress and the White House approved legislation to improve the way the government acquires IT equipment and services. The reforms are significant and welcome, and no doubt will facilitate the marketing of IT to federal agencies.

Federal IT Reform: Just Getting Started

President Obama signed the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, on Dec. 16, as a component of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. The new law enhances the role of agency chief information officers in the budgeting, planning and spending processes for IT acquisition; enhances transparency and oversight of agency IT investments; requires federal departments to take an enterprise-wide view of IT programs and investments; and continues programs designed to efficiently manage federal data centers.

However, enactment of the legislation is just the beginning of a comprehensive process for implementing improvements to federal IT procurement.

As enacted, FITARA "is an important first step toward increasing the participation of IT experts and managers in the IT acquisition process," noted Elizabeth Hyman, executive vice president at TechAmerica.

"Our members would have preferred a more extensive bill that addressed more areas of IT, specifically things like ensuring agile IT acquisition even with new review processes; pilot programs to allow for innovative ways to obtain IT solutions more quickly; and a reduction in the noncommercial terms and conditions that have increasingly crept into commercial solution IT contracts," she said.

Industry Cites Acquisition Agenda

The Information Technology Industry Council endorsed the legislation, although it was much more limited in scope than the original FITARA proposal that gained some traction in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We now expect to turn our attention to the much broader discussion about acquisition reform. There is much left to do," Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president, public sector, told the E-Commerce Times.

"One significant barrier to effective IT acquisition that is not addressed in FITARA is the lack of open standards on government networks. Today, agencies are frequently locked in to outdated IT infrastructure as a result of the monopoly-like IT environment created by proprietary standards and single vendor networks," observed Anthony Robbins, vice president federal at Brocade.

"The acquisition process can enable open standards by eliminating brand name references in requests for proposals. Open standards allow for the use of multivendor networks, which are proven to encourage cost savings. In fact, research shows that 94 percent of infrastructure-independent agencies have been able to save money through the use of multivendor networks," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Vendors face a number of federal IT acquisition challenges that are not addressed in FITARA, noted Katell Thielemann, research director for vertical industries-public sector at Gartner.

"Generally," she told the E-Commerce Times, "the following areas continue to need attention on the IT procurement front: the business acumen of acquisition personnel; outcomes-based contracting; and barriers to entry for commercial vendors or small businesses, due to cumbersome procurement rules and oversight requirements."

Other items that need improvement, according to Thielemann, include "colors of money" challenges; difficulties with multiyear budgeting; flexibility around hiring authorities for critical technical skill sets; adequate amount of competition for every bid; and the agility and speed of acquisition to keep up with pace of technology. The "colors of money" reference relates to a federal acquisition term of art for clarifying the type of acquisition within the appropriations process.

FITARA largely addresses civilian agencies, Thielemann noted.

"Interestingly, especially for a bill attached to the National Defense Authorization Act -- the FITARA provisions do not apply to most Department of Defense IT systems," she pointed out. "Only DoD business systems will require the mandatory IT portfolio review, under the leadership of a newly created role titled 'undersecretary of defense for business management and information.' The bill also excludes IT systems funded from the budgets of the Military Intelligence Program or the National Intelligence Program.

Thus, vendors will need to keep an eye on any initiatives the Pentagon may itself implement regarding procurement reforms.

No Guarantees

Whether the U.S. Congress will pursue additional legislative reforms dealing with federal IT acquisition in 2015 is an open question. The first efforts on FITARA came to the fore in 2012, and they did not reach fruition for almost three years.

"We look forward to working with new House and Senate leadership in the next Congress to keep the momentum for acquisition reform that this measure starts," said TechAmerica's Hyman. "We have high expectations that the next Congress will build on this reform, especially as it applies to DoD's acquisition of IT."

More reforms are possible, suggested Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who serves as ranking member of the Government Operations Subcommittee, and who was instrumental in drafting FITARA.

"In the 21st century, effective governance is inextricably linked with how well government leverages technology to serve its citizens, yet the federal government remains hamstrung by antiquated laws and bureaucratic cultures that stifle innovation and lead to mission-critical IT failures that waste taxpayer dollars and jeopardize our nation's safety, security and economy," he said.

"FITARA will be a critical first step towards ending this unacceptable status quo," Connolly maintained, "by empowering agency CIOs to champion best practices in IT management, accelerating data center optimization efforts, and prioritizing incremental development for major IT systems."

The Federal Buzz: Navy Selects Accenture, Cuba Telecom Policy

Navy ERP Award: The U.S. Navy has selected Accenture Federal Services to provide IT support and training capabilities through a series of five one-year task-order contracts, the company reported in late December. The total value of all five orders is US$19.8 million. Contract projects will be targeted for the Navy's enterprise resource planning system. They will include providing support for financial and supply chain systems, providing technical system development and enhancements, and delivering functional training support to system users. Navy ERP is an integrated financial and business management system that manages more than 50 percent of the Navy's total obligation authority, with more than 68,000 users. The system is designed to produce financial statements in compliance with Department of Defense and Navy audit guidance.

Cuba Policy Supported: The Telecommunications Industry Association voiced approval of the opening of Cuba's telecommunications market, as part of the Obama administration's move to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

"We welcome President Obama's announcement that would allow commercial exports of communications equipment to Cuba. We look forward to the commercial opportunities that the opening of Cuba represents for the telecommunications sector," said TIA CEO Scott Belcher.

One goal of the policy is to initiate new efforts to increase Cubans' access to communications and their ability to communicate freely. The U.S. government will allow the export of items that will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States and the rest of the world, the White House said, including the commercial sale of consumer communications devices, software, applications, hardware, and services, as well as items for the establishment and update of communications-related systems. Telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services.


John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.


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