Making Federal IT Reforms Easier Said Than Done

Good customer relations management involves a two-way process — making sure that customers are consulted as well as targeted. In fact, it is far more likely that a vendor will hit the target if consumer input is part of the marketing process.

Two recent surveys have taken the measure of the ultimate federal agency information technology consumer: the chief information officer and IT operations personnel. For the past 18 months, federal executives at the highest level at the White House and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have been directing numerous initiatives related to the procurement and use of IT as part of a comprehensive IT reform program.

Now the folks who do the heavy lifting have been heard from. Generally, they support the reforms, but their responses show that implementing reforms at the deployment stage is more difficult than simply issuing directives.

Federal Staffers Open to Innovation

In a survey of 220 federal IT workers conducted by MeriTalk, respondents indicated a strong interest in IT innovation.

“The survey results clearly highlight that federal employees aren’t against innovation and change but rather that they embrace new technology,” Steve O’Keeffe, founder and CEO of MeriTalk, told the E-Commerce Times.

“That said, the results also show that any new agency technology must be better than what it replaces, at parity with personal technology, and involve some training,” he added.

“On the macro level, the reform plan has raised the bar for acquiring and using IT,” George DelPrete, principal at Grant Thornton, said of the federal program, which involves improving IT performance in 25 separate areas.

“But those 25 points are a bit overwhelming. The IT people just wonder why it couldn’t be five or 10 points with more focus and some priorities,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

DelPrete presented the results of the Grant Thornton 2012 survey of federal IT professionals to a Senate oversight committee in May. The annual survey is sponsored by TechAmerica.

“Asked to rate the IT reform plan as a whole, survey respondents gave it a C-plus on feasibility, and a straight ‘C’ on value to their organizations, progress to date in implementation, and their leaders’ commitment to further progress,” DelPrete said at the Senate hearing.

“Despite the mediocre score they give the plan, most federal CIOs support it — they just want to see it improved. Positive comments include that the plan is a cookbook of good ideas, has spurred action, pushed good thinking, and helped centralize decision making,” he said.

Policies promoted by the plan might be better if they were more flexible because “one size does not fit all,” said respondents to the TechAmerica survey. CIOs indicated they would like a clearer statement of central agency priorities and overall strategy. They also wanted seed money for some of the innovations called for in the plan.

IT Procurement Is a Major Issue

Two-thirds of the 40 respondents to the TechAmerica survey expressed significant concern about the federal IT procurement process.

“A lot of respondents indicated that the acquisition process is still too slow and that the federal acquisition regulations (FARs) are too rigid,” DelPrete said.

Other acquisition issues mentioned in the survey include the following:

  • agency programs are not on the same timeline as central services and IT offices;
  • the current acquisition system limits access to innovative organizations, especially small businesses;
  • contracting officers and acquisition teams are not well trained for IT acquisition; and
  • contracting officers are over-cautious, focusing on how to avoid repeating problems versus applying lessons learned to new situations.

Another issue troubling federal IT staff was the increasing use of the “lowest priced, technically acceptable” (LPTA) acquisition practice. As used for IT procurement, the practice frequently yields less than “best value” for the taxpayer, the TechAmerica survey revealed.

For example, instead of considering the life cycle costs of items including acquisition, installation, operation, maintenance, upgrade and finally disposal, many acquisitions are driven only by which bid includes the lowest price. Often, other important considerations are left out of the equation.

At the Senate hearing, TechAmerica proposed that the LPTA practice be re-examined in terms of its true value, and that more effective and efficient practices be developed to address the new funding demands that IT products and services often impose.

Results of the MeriTalk survey, which was sponsored by Google, were similar to the TechAmerica findings in that federal IT professionals indicated they are open to innovation. For example, 67 percent of respondents to the MeriTalk survey said they would like the technology they use at work to keep pace with the technology they use in their personal lives, including tablets and other mobile devices.

“Having experienced the value of a wide range of mobile devices and cloud-based apps and storage at home, they are looking for the best way to bring these technology tools to the workplace,” said Dan Israel of Google Enterprise Federal.

Ninety-seven percent of federal employees shop online and 93 percent go online for banking, while 81 percent use Web-based email, according to the MeriTalk survey. Seventy-eight percent use social media, and 68 percent use smartphone apps.

Age is not the primary variable for technology adoption. For example, more federal IT workers in the 56- to 66-year-old age group use video conferencing or chat than do their peers. While younger federal workers are more likely to have used tools such as video conferencing and Web-based email longer, older employees still have adoption rates greater than 75 percent for these same technologies.

Delays in the adoption of innovative IT at the federal level should not be attributed to opposition by federal workers, according to O’Keeffe. Instead attention should be focused on the institutional barriers to adoption. In addition, respondents to the MeriTalk-Google survey said that the top barrier to adoption of new technology at work was training.

“Federal workers get a bad rap. Vendors should walk away knowing that federal employees aren’t averse to new technology. They are just averse to new technology that isn’t better than old technology, and to new technology that they haven’t been trained on how to use,” O’Keeffe said.

Vendors Must Be Patient

As the reforms gradually take hold, vendors should not get discouraged, DelPrete noted.

“Vendors need to keep doing what they have been doing and to be patient, make sure they respond to requests for information, and take every opportunity to dialog with federal customers and communicate what they can offer,” he said.

Security issues continue to be a significant factor in the pace of adoption of innovative IT. Security was one of the top three factors listed as a barrier to innovation in the MeriTalk survey.

On a positive note, the increase in security threats has led to some policy changes and innovation driven by a renewed sense of partnership between operations and cybersecurity offices and among government agencies, noted the TechAmerica survey. On the downside, cybersecurity threats are an inhibitor for IT centralization and mobility.

“Those barriers will come down only with greater trust among agencies,” DelPrete said, “resulting from a consistent, high-quality, government-wide security framework.”

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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