Guest column: Learning from our IT failures

2013_11_ITIF Robert Atkinson, ITIF

Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is a FedScoop contributor.

One can’t pass a single day without seeing coverage of the failure of the Affordable Care Act’s Health Insurance Marketplace, HIM. It is not surprising the website had problems, but more that people are shocked it did. The current process of managing and acquiring federal IT is largely broken and the HIM problems are just another example, which also includes past high-profile IT failures such as the delayed launch of and the Census Bureau’s handheld PC debacle.


Among the main causes of this dysfunction is the fact that the federal contracting process is inefficient and ineffective. With an accretion of rules and requirements from past scandals and failures, only the most intrepid firms are able to manage the labyrinth called federal contracting. Moreover, as Congress has tried to use federal contracting to fulfill social policy goals, agencies must give preferences to a wide variety of businesses—women-owned businesses, minority-owned businesses, veteran-owned businesses and the like. Federal procurement decisions should be decided on the basis of the best combination of price and quality. Unfortunately, these set-asides are sacred because no elected official wants it said that they are against: (fill selected group here).

In addition, federal management of contracting and IT systems development is not working. Federal executives are largely incapable of firing poor performers and have a hard time hiring the best and the brightest because of restrictive employment practices and an inability to match the pay of the private sector. Furthermore, failure is an option. While it is not uncommon in the private sector for individuals who lead projects that fail to lose their jobs, it is the exception in the federal government. Case in point, it is not likely anyone in the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will lose their job over the HIM debacle, although they may retire.

So what’s the solution? Here’s one answer: have the House and Senate government reform committees pass a law that would allow one federal agency to be completely exempt from all of these rules, including civil service and procurement regulations, for a period of three years. The Government Accountability Office would then do a soup-to-nuts evaluation of how it worked.

Here’s a second idea if the first one is too far a stretch: Congress should enable agencies to better manage IT and IT acquisition. This is especially important as IT is now central to enabling agencies to achieve their mission. Congress took a step in that direction in 1996 when it passed the Clinger-Cohen Act that established chief information officers in all federal agencies. But the CIO system has not lived up to its promise in part because of the lax direction and ambiguous authority these positions were given.

To fix this, Congress should eliminate duplicative CIOs and allow only one per agency. For example, even though HHS has a CIO, many of the agencies within HHS, including CMS, have their own CIOs, often with conflicting responsibility. Congress should also empower this new CIO with more authority for strategically managing IT resources by including them in the budget process and giving them responsibility for funds allocated for IT resources.


These types of changes, which are part of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act sponsored by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would give CIOs more power to formulate and implement their agency’s digital strategy and manage the procurement process to make sure it works.

Congress should also require government agencies to increase the use of public-private IT partnerships, where instead of the government building and operating IT systems at great expense, certified private companies are allowed to develop and maintain systems.

There are already numerous examples of success in this area, including the IRS’ efforts to partner with private firms to improve tax preparation and filing. Because private companies are competing intensely for market share, they have strong incentives to make their programs as user-friendly and cost competitive as possible.

Going further, Congress should also learn from the models developed abroad to manage IT services. For example, Great Britain radically transformed its government IT procurement practices after wasting £12 billion on an IT system for the National Health Service. Following this debacle, the UK created Government Digital Services, a lean and flexible government agency which provides quick response for digital solutions and manages all substantive IT acquisitions for UK government agencies. Congress should study the GDS model with the idea of replicating it here.

Congress can do two things in response to the HIM failure: It can score political points to attack the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration or it can use it to drive real reform in federal IT contracting and management. Let’s hope they don’t overlook the latter.

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