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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

We have to fix IT; we have no choice

I've previously mentioned that Information Technology is a problem child. But it is our problem child, and like our other children, it is our future. We have no choice; we have to fix IT. 

We have reared IT to be our gate keeper for all of our information and communication. Our future is presently reliant on a problem child that is outgrowing its clothes before we have the old ones paid off; growing so fast we don't even know what size to buy next. We have made it too big for its britches; we feed it, we are its enablers. We have allowed if not conscientiously designed IT to be a panacea, mission critical to almost every small aspect of our lives, let alone government contracting.

Tinkering with the procurement system will never work until we understand better what this child's own goals are. IT has it own dreams -- problems. The child needs more help than the nurturing procurement system can muster. I have taught my children that they can be anything they want, but the cannot be everything they want. IT wants to be everything, and we have to learn to reign IT in.

The discussions have begun, and in some places is well under way. Many more of us will have to know much much more about the problems before we can hope to find a solution. We cannot leave it to the problem child to determine our destiny.

Can IT procurement be saved?
Can the tens of thousands of people involved in government procurement — employees and contractors alike — absorb any life lessons for navigating the often bumpy road of large government IT projects? High-profile government procurement projects sometimes take a wrong turn or crash spectacularly into technological or logistical ditches. Sometimes they can be resurrected or salvaged, and sometimes they are scrapped. The smoldering remains can be attributed to the myriad miscues, oversights or missteps in a hugely complex system.

In other words, bungled launches didn't start with HealthCare.gov, and the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services is hardly alone in its stumbling. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security picked Boeing to oversee its $1.9 billion program dubbed SBInet, which sought to revolutionize border security by integrating infrastructure, technology and border security agents. Unfortunately, it didn't work.

Complex federal procurement rules can contribute to the failure of advanced IT systems such as HealthCare.gov or SBInet, but Amey contends that even a wholesale overhaul of those rules probably wouldn't help much. Others say spending cuts and budget uncertainty have sped up an erosion of the federal procurement workforce. Still others blame rules they say place a crippling emphasis on getting the lowest price at the expense of what might work best.

Ultimately, said Roger Waldron, president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, successful federal contracts happen when the government understands what it wants and what it is asking of bidders, and bidders understand how to work with the government. It's not just about getting to yes — it's about getting to yes, I know exactly what I want, and here's how I want you to give it to me.

Testing, predesign decisions and planning are essential to successfully integrating legacy systems, said Jay Shah, executive vice president of Octo Consulting Group. One key, he said, is not to rush the procurement process. Budget pressures are forcing agencies with legacy systems to "think incrementally and not transformationally" when it comes to implementing new systems, he added, but agile development is not a silver bullet.

"While most government agencies love the idea of agile, the [federal] procurement process and capital planning [are] counter to what agile espouses," Shah said. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who represents a swath of Silicon Valley, wants to make the system more open and accessible. "My sense is that there are inside-the-Beltway contractors that know the current system very, very well, and they are the ones that are awarded the contracts," she said.
5 areas to start IT procurement reform
“There’s a beauty and a tragedy at this critical inflection point, in regard to people and technology,” said Stan Soloway, the president of the Professional Services Council. “We have a once in a multigenerational opportunity to do this.” Few envision such a complex system will change with one sweeping gesture.

Here are five broad areas of reform experts suggest as a place to start:

1. Put someone in charge
Numerous agencies weigh in on technology procurement, but no one carefully monitors the entire process. “Part of the problem with procurement is no one is taking a holistic view with the entire supply chain,” said Clay Johnson, a former presidential innovation fellow and current chief executive officer of the Department of Better Technology. [We need an IT czar? One?]

2. Prioritize people
The federal procurement process depends on contracting officers. “The government continues to struggle mightily to attract IT talent,” PSC’s Soloway said. [Note this is an argument for bringing more IT decision making in house via people who are trained to understand the problem well enough to fashion a solution, rather than outsourcing it to purveyors of legacy based systems.]

3. [Omitted by the administrator of this blog, revealing a lack of knowledge of principles of procurement (IT maybe, procurement no), and beating an old horse rather than seizing a once in a mulitgenerational opportunity as promised.]

4. Don’t fear the woodshed
Any real reform to federal IT, experts warn, must allow for ingenuity. “These guys are scared to death because if they make a wrong decision, they are going to get taken to the woodshed,” Safavian said. “Leaders need to become better risk absorbers,” Soloway said. “You can’t have a system where everyone thinks they are going to get hammered.” [Problem children need love and discipline.]

5. Throw away the rules
A complex tangle of regulations sometimes upends its very purpose. [And here I thought they were going to mean, start with new code and open architecture.]
Have ideas on government procurement?
The Department of Finance would like your feedback to help improve communication between government and industry during the procurement process.
Lessons for Procurement from IT Vendor Management: Audits, Inputs, and Competitive Spirit
Starting with audits, Erickson-Harris suggests that vendor management organizations “incorporate the right to conduct audits to gain a first-hand look at operations periodically” in part because “showing up tells the service provider that you take the relationship seriously.” [And want to be taken to lunch.] These audit rights should include contract penalty clauses that have teeth. [Problem children respond well to standing over them with a stick and a dog with big teeth. And auditors know all about the IT you're struggling with.]

Erickson-Harris suggests: “Asking vendors what measures they can put in place to ensure quality." [We hired these guys to do it because we didn't know how. We didn't even know how to spec the contract. And we expect the contractor to tell us how to do it better in a completely disinterested way that's going to save us money? How would be know?]

Finally, keep up the competitive spirit. To wit, “keep the vendor on its toes and the situation competitive". I might suggest tempering this recommendation, after all, you don’t want to find yourself using the threat of leverage or competition with a critical supplier when the vendor knows that you don’t really have other options. [On second thought, just ask him what we need and be thankful we have him on payroll.]
Government Tech Problems: Blame The People Or The Process? [Or something else, maybe, like the underlying assumptions of need?]
What should be done about government's tech issues depends on what you see as the source of the problem. And that's where there's disagreement among the "People Who Think About Procurement More Than You And Me."

Stan Soloway heads the Professional Services Council, which represents federal contractors who are hired to build these projects. He told The Times he sees the problem as the "punishing and punitive" environment of government. "It's the human capital, the way the government buys services, the way the government determines its own requirements, the lack of collaboration within government, the lack of collaboration between the government and the private sector, the outdated systems within government," Soloway told the newspaper.

Clay Johnson, who has been fighting for procurement reform since before it became cool, takes issue with that argument. "Bad clients exist everywhere. Blaming the client is the oldest trick in the book. It's toxic." Instead, he sees the issue as being an environment that doesn't favor competition, which boosts incumbents who do mediocre or even poor work.

Determining what's at root will drive future policy decisions. President Obama has said again and again that government needs to improve the way it procures and uses technology. But so far, the White House hasn't put out any specific plans to tackle the issue.

On the legislative front, the bipartisan bill to address part of the problem — the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) — passed the House last June but got axed from the Senate version. That bill did not centrally take on the competitive environment, but it would have given more power to technology officers inside government so they could better project-manage the work of contractors and developers.
Obama Calls for IT Procurement Reform
Obama said, “I personally have been frustrated with the problems around the website on health care. And it’s inexcusable.”

[He then offered excuses:] The president said part of the problem was simply managing an operation as large and complex as the federal government. “What I want to just remind people of is that this government is an enormous enterprise,” he said, “and so even as sometimes we see ourselves getting stymied at the congressional level, at the administrative level, in the work that we’re doing, all kinds of changes are happening.”
CGI's Contract to Help Run Health Site Won't Be Renewed
CGI Group Inc. said federal officials won't renew its contract to oversee key parts of HealthCare.gov, the online insurance marketplace that launched with major defects on Oct. 1. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said in a statement that it chose Accenture become the lead contractor. People close to the project said they were "blindsided" when they learned of the decision Friday.
TechAmerica: Congress key to effective procurement reform
The problems afflicting federal IT acquisition system are not incurable, according to TechAmerica's newly installed Senior Vice President for Public Sector Mike Hettinger, but they could use a strong dose of legislative medicine. TechAmerica is working to foster congressional efforts to change acquisition rules beyond simple knee-jerk reactions to those particular failures. Hettinger said he is looking to educate lawmakers on the intricacies of federal IT acquisition practices and facilitate a dialogue across industry, legislative and executive branch lines. He also said the intricate nature of federal IT acquisition means only a handful of lawmakers have a full grasp of the process.  [But they likely have a better grasp of the IT acquisition process than of the IT process itself. which is a more easily exploitable weakness.]

Proposals to create a new agency that would manage large IT projects and boost the federal government's ability to hire IT specialists from private industry are steps in the right direction, he said. [Yes, revolving doors are good, for someone.]  But for effective reform, Congress must be involved, Hettinger said.

And he knows that legislative territory.

TechAmerica named Hettinger vice president of its public sector group in mid-December as the organization began a legal battle with rival Information Technology Industry after several former TechAmerica public sector executives, including former Senior Vice President for Global Public Sector Trey Hodgkins, left abruptly for jobs at ITI. TechAmerica alleges some of those former employees stole valuable membership information.

Hettinger said his new employer assured him the organization was committed to its public sector operations and that he had no reservations about taking on the new job. "The reason I'm here is because this is the premier association. TechAmerica is doing things no one else can." He also noted that TechAmerica is in the process of hiring three additional public policy group personnel in the coming weeks who will work with him. [See there? The key to problem is with Congress, not the IT industry, and all it needs is a good lobbyist or three to set things straight. Yea!]





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