Federal IT acquisition 2014: A year of reform


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More than $1 out of every $6 in the federal government goes to contractors through a procurement vehicle, yet agencies continually struggle to get it right. That was apparent in 2014, a year marked by governmentwide efforts to reform acquisition, especially in IT.

Most notable was the congressional effort to pass Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, a bill that in early December passed the House and Senate as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. FITARA, now awaiting President Barack Obama’s sign off, is meant to streamline the way government buys IT, about $80 billion worth annually. The bill was a topic of heated debate all year (and last) and saw several iterations. This version, which should become law, is considered by some IT experts to be more diluted than originally intended but a step in the right direction.

“The last real time we delved into [IT reform] was the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, so it’s been almost two decades,” Alan McQuinn, a research assistant at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told FedScoop’s Jake Williams in December. “Obviously, the federal government and its ability to keep up with innovation has been lagging miserably behind. It’s definitely a first step, and that’s what it is, it’s a first solid step forward.”

Outside of Congress, agencies took IT procurement into their own hands. Bryan Sivak, CTO of the Department of Health and Human Services, and an HHS IDEA Lab team run by Mark Naggar introduced HHS Buyers Club, an agile approach to making procurement more effective. Nearly half of all IT acquisitions in excess of $10 million fail, according the Standish Group’s Chaos Manifesto, and the HHS team wanted to change that.

“The goal is to help try to figure out how to do procurement better,” Sivak said in August when they listed their first solicitation. “And when I say do procurement better, I mean get a better end-result in terms of the actual products that get built and implemented. The main thrust of what we’re working on is building a set of artifacts that program managers and procurement officials and any other folks associated with any kind of procurement can use to think about ways to do some of these more innovative procurement types rather than the sort of standard [way].”

HHS Buyers Club has since closed that first procurement and is in the ramp up process, spreading the gospel of an agile procurement process.

The General Services Administration predictably led the charge on a host of new procurement changes as the agency responsible for a large portion of governmentwide acquisition. GSA’s biggest and brightest new idea is the common acquisition platform, a move toward a more efficient procurement style based on category management. Instead of asking procurement officers to become subject matter experts on anything their agency needs to buy, this system suggests that, somewhere out there in the government, somebody is an expert at procuring a given item.

“Right now, there are 61,000 people working in the federal government doing acquisitions on behalf of federal agencies, and many of them are working in a bubble without knowledge of what their counterparts across the government are doing,” said Tom Sharpe, GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service commissioner. “They’re very clearly not acting as one. We’re operating like 500 different small businesses suboptimizing the purchasing power of the federal government … an incredible waste of human capital and money.”

Big Story of 2014

HHS Buyers Club set for ramp up after first procurement

By Billy Mitchell · Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2014 · 5:35 p.m.

Read more of our 2014 wrap-up coverage:

2014 Year-in-Review: Big names and big stories

2014 forges a new, more comfortable relationship with cloud for government

Congress 2014: The year of unfinished business

Cybersecurity 2014: The battle for mindshare

Defense 2014: The year of strategies and women

FAA 2014: From UAS integration to NextGen

The FCC’s 2014 in the spotlight may be just the beginning

Health IT 2014: The push toward interoperable data

Patent and Trademark 2014: The downfall of a teleworking leader

Veterans Affairs 2014: The Year of Being Held Accountable

Federal workforce 2014: Hiring millennials and closing the STEM skills gap

White House 2014: Departures, digital service and Google

-In this Story-

Agencies, Common Acquisition Platform, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Departments, General Services Administration (GSA), HHS Buyers Club