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A look at a new draft bill to reform IT procurement. What they want to do, how they will pay for it, and what I think.
© Sashkin - Fotolia.com
© Sashkin – Fotolia.com

Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and Congressman Gerry Connolly (who happens to be the representative of my local area) have proposed draft legislation that would overhaul how the federal government develops its IT projects.

Let’s look at the two key things they’re trying to do, and then tackle the third issue of how they’re proposing to pay for it.

First, they want to create an office within the Executive Office of the President (EOP), which would basically review major IT plans. Currently, every IT expenditure above a certain cost or that has mission critical importance falls under a requirement to have budgetary line items established well in advance and placed in a portfolio system called Exhibit 300. From the OMB website: “Under the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, agencies are required to submit business plans for IT investments to OMB that outline the steps they have taken to ensure they have adequately planned each investment to promote success.”

This new legislation will go beyond justifying the money, and get at how you’re actually going to carry out the project. This stems out of the technical problems with the launch of the Healthcare.gov website in October 2013. Healthcare.gov was slated for failure from Day One because the government, which is simply not equipped to do this, tried to do the systems integration. Systems integration is a complicated discipline requiring a lot of knowledge about how to put pieces together. No matter how talented our government IT professionals are, that’s not what they’re about.

The more companies and agencies have to describe and justify the follow-through of what they are planning with their IT ventures, the more likely you are to catch these things in advance. Of course, bureaucracy is a double-edged sword. You’ll catch a few big things and avoid some disasters, but you’ll also create delays and problems in getting numerous other things through.

The second thing this new legislation would do will allegedly be good for small businesses. It will raise the threshold on “streamlined contracting process,” from $150,000-$500,000. (From some people’s perspective this is a really good thing. Not working for a big company, I don’t have the same stake in the game.)

Streamlined acquisition processes are designed essentially to cut away all the wheat and chaff, and come down to what is often a very limited competition. The reason non-streamlined acquisition takes so long is because you have to have all the terms and conditions, and publish to a large community. Even with an IDIQ, a more limited community, it’s still a lot of people. With a streamlined process, you only have to pick two or three bidders, and no one else gets a shot at the job.

Unfortunately, this change is just as likely to produce crony-ism as efficiency. While it’s good to hire the people you know best and trust, are they automatically going to be the best for the job?

We have to realize that a lot of these $500,000 projects represent the bulk of what becomes task orders of IDIQ contracts. So for the big guys who are living off these as task orders, if we force these into the single acquisition process, the large companies will just bundle more work, making these contracts less accessible to small business. There’s always going to be a way for the big businesses to figure out how to keep their work and get around these new ideas. They big guys got big for a reason – they’re successful at doing what it takes to win business.

Lastly, let’s look at how Eshoo and Connolly propose to pay for this new office in the EOP, and that is to “repurpose” surplus GSA fees. Currently, everybody who has a GSA multiple award contract pays GSA a finder’s fee if they get any work out of the contract. GSA goes through the trouble of doing the contracting, the agency orders off that contract, and gives GSA payment in return. However, GSA may go about collecting more money than it costs to execute that particular contract, e.g., there’s a ton of work under IT70, so the money collected from IT70 contractors may in turn be redirected to cover the costs of contracting in an area with fewer transactions.

So while it seems like extra money that’s up for grabs, it’s actually not. The fact is that the GSA has built a structure based on knowing they can move around these excess fees to cover costs for things they need to do – things that Congress has asked them to do. It’s not “free money.” We can’t just use that money without having detrimental effects on something GSA is doing with that money. Something that is currently being supported will no longer be supported.

IT procurement is definitely in need of reform, but in my opinion, so is this bill.

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