There has been a lot of debate in the media recently about who or what is to blame for the Healthcare.gov failure. The saying “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” comes to mind. Practically everyone in government and the private sector with a role in Healthcare.gov has been under the media’s microscope. The media’s finger-pointing aside, the fact is that no one individual or office is responsible for this disaster. Without a doubt, a fundamental but only recently discussed reason for the Healthcare.gov failure is the overly complex and inefficient federal information technology (IT) procurement system that the U.S. government employs today.
I’m not the first person to make this claim, and I certainly won’t be the last. In fact, many in industry and government are offering solutions to prevent future federal IT program disasters. For example, Richard Spires delivered testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee suggesting the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) could be a possible fix. Clay Johnson, in his #lettoddwork campaign (referencing US Chief Information Officer Todd Park), and Washington Post columnist, Ezra Klein, also singled out FITARA.
Suggestions to reform the acquisition process are certainly timely in light of Healthcare.gov and draw appropriate attention toward solutions. There are a number of provisions in FITARA that would be helpful for federal agencies that rely on IT and also have the support of industry. For example, the bill would enhance authorities for federal Chief Information Officers (CIOs); establish multiyear revolving funds for IT investments; optimize federal data centers; and strengthen the federal IT acquisition workforce.
However, there are other provisions in FITARA that require further discussion in order to ensure that we bring real efficiencies to the federal acquisition process and avoid the unintended consequence of new complexity on top of existing complexity. For example, more discussions are needed on the proposed Assisted Acquisition Centers of Excellence and the Federal Infrastructure and Common Application Collaboration Center. While these ideas are well-intended, it is essential that these and other proposed reforms address the shortcomings in existing contracting mechanisms that contributed to the Healthcare.gov mess.
It is also important that any new federal entities created as part of acquisition reform do not tax existing governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs) and multiple award contracts (MACs) without providing any additional accountability for the use of those funds. It is also essential to ensure we know how Congress plans to pay for the federal workforce training and new automation tools for acquisition personnel that these monies normally fund. Without that clarification, we risk robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Both taxpayers and government contractors deserve effective acquisition reform, and one approach worth considering is akin to the review from 1993 by the Section 800 Panel, which crafted transformative legislative proposals for government acquisition. Such a wholesale review process can be used again to identify solutions to the systemic problems engrained in the process and its workforce today.
It is encouraging to see greater recognition that the Healthcare.gov challenges actually stem from symptoms of a diseased acquisition reform system. There are several provisions in FITARA that represent important first steps for acquisition reform, but a more extensive and innovative review of acquisition processes is needed if we are to make the overall acquisition process more effective and efficient, while preventing future IT project debacles.