There is growing momentum on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration to dramatically overhaul the way the federal government manages technology, a change meant to hold officials more accountable for runaway expenses, outsourcing and contractual deliverables, and failed projects.
The movement is due in large part of the disastrous rollout of the Obamacare website. The Obamacare rollout revealed dozens of other failed tech projects that have cost taxpayers billions of dollars while allowing contractors to turn in substandard work.
Of 3,555 federal IT projects that cost at least $10 million, only 6 percent were a success, according to a study by the Standish Group. More than 50 percent of large projects were deemed "challenged," meaning they didn't meet user expectations, went over budget, or ran late. The remaining 42 percent were simply failures.
The reform movement is growing on three fronts. First, the broad range of information being collected by the federal government through the health care exchange is raising issues about the site’s security. Contractors have submitted a list of security concerns about the site to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) who is now sharing them with other House members.
Second, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation to overhaul federal tech procurement and how the government builds technology. Similar legislation has already passed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It's expected to head to the full House soon.
Sen. Jerry Moran, who sponsored the bill, said it was a direct result of Obamacare's failures. "The systemically flawed rollout of HealthCare.gov is one high-profile example of IT procurement failures, but numerous more projects incur cost overruns, project delays and are abandoned altogether,” Moran said in a statement announcing the bill.
Finally, DOD is set to radically overhaul how it oversees its cyber operations. The 2014 National Defense Authorization act requires DOD to appoint an adviser with oversight of the Pentagon's offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. DOD is also required to undertake a broad inquiry into its cyber capabilities.
All of these efforts share one central theme: empowering high-level officials to be accountable. Right now, officials like HHS’s Deputy Chief Information Officer Henry Chao are paper tigers; they have no real authority to overhaul failing projects. These bills would change that, according to Daniel Castro, senior IT policy analyst at The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation.
"They don’t always have the right powers to change things," Castro said of the heads of federal IT projects. " You think you’re appointing an official that would have the power to control oversight and demand accountability. But they don’t."
Political Push vs. Bureaucratic Push Back
Castro says the political will for giving Chief Information Officers more power -- and in the process, making the more accountable -- is there.
"Every member of congress that sits on a committee where there’s oversight of a federal agency has seen an agency not do something right with IT," he said.
However, the pushback for more accountability within the bureaucracy is likely to be severe.
"A lot of agencies are slow because they’re risk averse," he said, adding that the culture around IT at the federal level has to change. He said that the government must be willing to spend more at the outset to get a better product at the end.
"The government has trouble doing good procurement. It’s hard to get the competitive environment that we want. You want to be able to procure easily in a fast moving market where you need to have people who known tech well," he said. "It’s hard to get the right kind of environment that rewards creativity and success."
Some within the IT community think the government should go even farther in creating tech oversight. In a recent interview, Luke Chung, founder and CEO of the software company FMS and one of the people who first identified problems with Healthcare.gov, called on Congress to create one singular office to police all federal tech problems as opposed to having oversight at the agency level.
"Policy makers are totally outgunned and incapable of managing this. They don’t know if tech should cost a million or a hundred million. There needs to be a GAO for technology, a TAO," he said, referring to a “technology accountability office” idea. "This agency could provide the governance to make sure these things are reasonable."
Chung added that the procurement process would be the most difficult part of federal technology to reform.
“We have a situation where these big government contractors are designed to win contracts but not deliver quality. Because they fail to deliver quality they get more contractors and change orders. They did exactly what our system incentivizes them to do,” he said.
“Contractors that are big never get blamed for anything that’s going on. The big companies have so many lawyers, that if there are accusations, they can fight them legally,” he said. “Anyone who tries to accuse them [of bad performance] would be fought tooth and nail.
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