Federal IT Reform: Something Left and Right Can Agree On?

Government reform initiatives are frequently long on saying, and short on doing. White papers and strategic plans are the stuff of good intentions, but actual implementation is often elusive.

The ambitious goal of the Obama administration to improve information technology management and procurement at the federal level is as vulnerable to gradual sputtering and coming up short as any “good government” reform.

However, the administration is finding support for its initiative from the political left and right — a situation that — for now, at least — bodes well for eventual success.

Recently, representatives of the IT Acquisition Advisory Council (ITAAC) managed to get a hearing with Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., a freshman member of the House. Lankford is one of many newcomers on Capitol Hill with an avowed mission to cut spending and waste in government. Importantly, as a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, Lankford chairs a subcommittee dealing with technology, information policy, and procurement reform.

“We briefed Rep. Lankford on our reform program, and he is determined to fix federal information technology acquisition,” John Weiler, vice-chair of ITAAC, told the E-Commerce Times, after its meeting in late March. ITAAC has been supporting the administration’s goals for more efficient use of IT resources, including procurement reforms, since 2009.

Left Connection Also Active

While Rep. Lankford is aligned with an activist conservative element, a group associated with Democratic leaders is also concerned about waste in government — and has specifically focused on information technology.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a working group session for federal IT specialists in March in an effort to support the administration’s IT reform program that is being conducted through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the federal chief information officer. CAP was founded by John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Other prominent Democrats, including former Sen. Tom Daschle, are associated with CAP.

“We got involved as part of our general interest in promoting improvement in government services and performance,” Pratap Chatterjee, visiting fellow at CAP, told the E-Commerce Times. “The idea was to provide a forum for the IT specialists to exchange some of the lessons learned and describe their experiences in meeting the objectives of the OMB program.”

The discussions ranged from sharing best-practice information to addressing the issue of improving dialog between government agencies and the private sector in IT acquisitions, to adopting improved contracting mechanisms for IT procurement. OMB issued a 25-point plan for improving IT management last December.

The CAP work session was supported by ITAAC.

“It was pretty well attended by federal CIOs and a few private sector representatives who just visited as observers,” Weiler said.

Keeping the Pressure On

“It was evident from the meeting that these are early days, and significant work still needs to be done in terms of cultural change in embracing better and more efficient IT management, as well as improving contracting vehicles and processes,” Weiler said.

For example, there is still a tendency to take a siloed approach to IT acquisition, in that the agencies stick to their own procedures and are not fully embracing more enterprise or government-wide procurement practices.

In many cases, they are simply grafting a “new” approach — such as cloud computing — onto existing contracting methods, rather than stepping back and visualizing a broader approach in concert with other agencies. This tends to impede efforts to remove vendor lock-in, and instead perpetuates existing vendor relationships.

“It is clear that this will be a gradual, building-block effort. But I think the meeting succeeded in keeping people focused, and in sharing experiences. The main thing was keeping the momentum going,” said Weiler. ITAAC will continue sponsoring forums, and plans on holding a follow-up session in late April.

OMB itself is keeping the pedal to the metal in the IT management program. The agency is moving aggressively to review the status of information technology programs at 26 federal agencies that have a dedicated chief information officer. All 26 agencies were slated to complete their first TechStats session with OMB by April 1. Each session is a face-to-face, evidence-based review of an IT investment, triggered when an agency determines that a project is underperforming.

The Federal Buzz: Notes on Government IT

Federal IT Opportunity: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is hosting a briefing for IT vendors on May 25. VA says the objective of the Advanced Planning Briefing for Industry is to inform industry on acquisition opportunities from the agency’s Office of Information and Technology (OI&T) and other relevant topics.

The all-day session will be held at the Sheraton Hotel in Eatontown, N.J. Registration will start at 7 a.m. Conference preregistration is required and is limited to two attendees per company. There is no fee to participate. Registration will be accepted on a first come, first served basis until capacity is reached. Vendors may register for the APBI via the Virtual Office of Acquisition (VOA): under APBI library. For vendors that are not currently VOA users, registration/login instructions are provided on the main page. Vendors should contact [email protected] for technical assistance.

Feds Seek Comment on Health IT: The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) is seeking comment on its just released Federal Health Information Technology Strategic Plan (2011-2015). ONC is a unit within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is coordinating the federal program for implementing a national electronic health records system. The strategy embraces a comprehensive effort involving medical professionals, insurance providers and community groups.

One objective of the strategy is to “provide clear direction to the health IT industry regarding government roles and policies for protecting individuals while not stifling innovation.” Currently the government facilitates and monitors the health IT industry and stays abreast of innovations primarily through panels, conferences, white papers and similar outreach efforts.

The plan envisions enhancing these efforts to promote advances in health IT “through open innovation prizes and challenge grants focused on specific health IT problems,” ONC said.

Potential focus areas include helping to ensure privacy and security in the digital health infrastructure, increasing the usability of health information systems to enhance provider interactions, the creation of new analytical techniques to inform improved care, and the development of more efficient methods of data compression and communication. The deadline for comment on the IT strategy is April 22, 2011.

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