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September 15, 2014
By Charles Ellison

Fast-paced, glittery and “tech”-filled television shows like Bones and NCIS can, of course, be a bit misleading on their subject matter. But perhaps the most inaccurate idea they convey is that federal government agencies are always on the cutting edge of technology.

In fact, the federal government’s purchasing process can barely keep up with those pop culture trends, let alone stay on pace with the speed of technological advances. Sean Gallagher at ARS Technica described “why [the] US government IT fails so hard, so often” in an October 2013 piece showing a world in which the Drug Enforcement Agency’s “standard server platform was still Windows Server 2003” and “most agencies didn't start migrating off Windows XP until 2011 or later.”

As Gallagher called it, much of the problem lies with the archaic Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), the tattered and bloated bible of government procurement procedures. Despite its obvious flaws and inability to keep the feds on track with the innovation race, even state and local governments turn to the FAR as some sort of gold standard. For example, states or state-like jurisdictions like the District of Columbia pretty much copy FAR’s procedures. The National Association of State Procurement Officials IT Procurement Working Group, perhaps stuck in a time loop, hasn’t even updated its comprehensive national analysis of state IT buying practices since 2009. The assumption, at the moment, is that the federal government has the resources to upgrade the FAR when needed.

A challenge is that the staying power of FAR 1.0 could be a problem as the Obama administration presses on with an IT strategy focused on innovation and efficiency. In many ways, it’s the government’s inability to embrace the adaptive sourcing bimodal IT approach trumpeted by Gartner analyst Claudio Da Rold. If that were the case then agencies would have one “mode continuing the traditional aspects of IT (run and differentiate) [and] the second mode of operation—which is much faster and more flexible than the traditional mode—is intended as an IT innovation engine.”

Which is why the new federal IT strategy has taken on a renewed sense of urgency since the very public debacle known as dominated headlines for months. Meanwhile, the FY 2015 budget actually decreased IT spending levels by 2.9 percent for a total of $79 billion for IT and $13 billion for cybersecurity. Forrester’s Rick Parrish emphasized the administration’s shift to “CX,” or customer experience, is shaping the IT strategy. “Although the president's budget is only the opening move in a negotiation process between the White House and Congress,” noted Parrish, “it shows that the administration is willing to fund enhancements for the most problematic federal customer experiences” like the IRS, Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs.  

But is the FAR itself customer-friendly? Members of Congress like Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) don’t think so, pointing out that 94 percent of federal IT projects between 2003 and 2012 either failed, were off schedule or mostly over-budget. "Thousands of pages of procurement regulations discourage small innovative businesses from even attempting to navigate the rules,” said a rankled Eshoo in a recent statement introducing the Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology Act, or RFP-IT Act.

While the legislation’s intent is admirable, there’s no clear path to its passage as the two Democrats sponsoring it—Eshoo and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA)—have yet to gain any support from Republicans in the House (who currently hold power as the chamber’s majority). It’s a spirited attempt from two legislators representing major technology incubators like Silicon Valley and Northern Virginia, but whether their colleagues understand the gravity of the issue is unclear. Connolly attempted a similar bipartisan effort with House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA)—a former technology executive—last year with the introduction of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. But that didn’t catch on either.

Still, Gartner’s Neville Cannon predicts in a recent Hype Cycle that governments will figure it out as “[the] advent of technologies that can deliver significant but short-lived return on investment has placed pressure on traditional procurement policies and practices … and will demand agile public procurement to become the norm for government agencies.”

As we’re already seeing, the White House has taken immediate steps in that direction, partly pressed not to repeat recent IT fiascos and partly due to advances in the innovation economy that can no longer be ignored. Clearly, there’s a convergence of government action on IT procurement that could eventually line up nicely with business strategies deployed by countless technology organizations eager to get their share of federal cake. As the New York Times noted, the federal government is still the “largest consumer of technology projects in the world,” one reason innovators like SAP, Salesforce, and Google put lobbying muscle behind bills such as Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-CO) Federal Information Technology Savings, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2013. Such developments will accelerate the need for expertise and talent, which could prompt government agencies to lean more heavily on firms that provide such as strategic partners. 

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.

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