Ever since Healthcare.gov’s epic launch failure, media coverage on how to fix government IT procurement has become widespread. Many advocates in this space have begun promoting a bill that was introduced in March of last year, FITARA — The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (HR 1232). The bill is wide ranging and includes some things we’re big fans of, like affirming the role of open source software as a viable alternative to proprietary software and mandating that the Office of Management and Budget set clear guidelines on the “use, release and collaborative development of open source software.” But it’s unclear whether it gets at the problems that have plagued Healthcare.gov. In reality, the problems of government IT contracting are the same problems that persist in government contracting more generally.
Soliciations and Requirements Are Obscure
Many have documented difficulties registering as a federal contractor, navigating the bidding process and even just finding opportunities to bid on. Solicitations like the one that attracted the contractors who built Healthcare.gov don’t list a specific project or statement of work, but a generic list of contractor qualifications. One of those qualifications? Having worked for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid services (CMS) in the past:
Qualified contractors will have a thorough understanding of the CMS business model, CMS systems, and industry benchmarks. Contractors should also have experience delivering high-quality services and products in accordance with the CMS Integrated IT Investment & System Life Cycle Framework and CMS Enterprise Architecture (EA) standards (See the Enterprise Architecture section of the CMS website).
According to the description, one of the main prerequisites for bidding is that you have already been part of a CMS IT development cycle. It’s no wonder there aren’t many new entrants to this market.
Contracting Officers Lack the Proper Tools to Evaluate Bids
Contracting Officers still get bids on a contract through their email inbox. Not only does this make it difficult to manage any more than a handful of bids, but it scatters bids across thousands of email inboxes, making it all but impossible to do a broad analysis. Although it’s illegal to make these bids public, the government could certainly use this information to better understand where the biggest and smallest capacities lie in the government contractor sector, which solicitations are likely to get more bids and thus require more reviewing capacity, and which solicitations require more publicity to get a broad set of competitors.
What if a solicitation is successfully publicized and gets hundreds of bids? Awesome, that’s so much competition! Well, unlike private companies, the federal government is legally bound to review each bid, assess it and be legally justified in accepting or denying it. Additionally, companies can file a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office if they believe they were unfairly rejected (The GAO has a twitter account listing these decisions — it can be interesting). If only there were some way to easily identify bids from companies that violate wage laws, have a terrible performance record or have already been outright banned from doing business with the government…
Lack of Data Interoperability Makes Contractor Oversight Difficult
The government already maintains databases on all of these things! There’s the Excluded Parties List, the OSHA violations database, the Department of Labor violations database, the EPA environmental violations database, the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System and more. The problem is, identifying entities across these databases can be tricky (but not impossible!). Improvements to these data systems can be made to make them more useful and interoperable with how contracting officers review bids. There’s no reason the United States government should be supporting companies that break the law by awarding them lucrative contracts. And by ceasing subsidies to these bad actors, maybe there will be room for more law-abiding companies to compete for contracts.
It looks like there are some tools in the works to make the whole process a little less painful. Perhaps FITARA should be more focused on availability of data rather than creating cadres, centers of excellence, and collaboration centers. Currently, USASpending.gov, the government’s one stop shop for spending data, can’t easily be connected to the original solicitations for the work. Instead, you’re limited to a 255 character description, such as “MOD #P00016“. We lack the capability to holistically profile and analyze both successful and unsuccessful contracts. In truth, where are the data driven analytics (touted by Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Joe Jordan) that will help us make smarter, more effective decisions?
We have to recognize that we cannot completely outsource huge swaths of government work without also supporting the workforce that does the outsourcing. And that workforce is consistently shrinking and under-trained. With respect to IT specifically, the base assumption of FITARA is that the private sector will always do IT better than the government. This may be true, but even while we outsource all of our IT work to contractors, much of the IT management for these projects stays within government. As Clay Shirky smartly observed:
The vision of “technology” as something you can buy according to a plan, then have delivered as if it were coming off a truck, flatters and relieves managers who have no idea and no interest in how this stuff works, but it’s also a breeding ground for disaster. The mismatch between technical competence and executive authority is at least as bad in government now as it was in media companies in the 1990s, but with much more at stake.
All of the capacity building in the bill is focused on the “IT Acquisition Workforce”, not the IT workforce itself (including managers). I wonder if there’s a way to encourage the “in-sourcing” of government IT professionals to build expertise within government. Perhaps that’s what some of the centers created in the bill are meant to accomplish, but it’s not specific enough to know for sure. Most of the new positions are intended to be staffed by detailees from other agencies, so it’s unclear whether that gets at the heart of the problem.
The Senate has yet to produce their own version of FITARA, so it may be unlikely that this bill sees any action in the upper chamber at all. Regardless, any final version of FITARA should have strong provisions for data availability and interoperability with respect to any data on contractors, their performance and any oversight data the government is already mandated to collect.