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One Way Lawmakers Are Trying To Prevent Government IT Disasters

HealthCare.gov's infamous failure to launch has inspired some fresh legislation that aims to organize and streamline the currently scattered — and expensive — approach to multimillion-dollar technology projects built by the government and its contractors.

Specifically, the measure, which is co-sponsored by Reps Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., calls for the creation a U.S. Digital Government Office, charged with reviewing and guiding major IT projects of all federal agencies. It also makes permanent the role of U.S. Chief Technology Officer, a position that has only existed in recent years under the Obama administration.

HealthCare.gov's disastrous debut brought to light long-festering issues with how the government handles technology projects — contracting processes favor entrenched vendors who don't deliver efficiently or effectively, tech talent that's available inside government is lacking and there are hundreds of agencies running in several directions on services that duplicate efforts and resources.

"In the 21st century, effective governance is inextricably linked with how well government leverages technology to serve its citizens," Connolly said in a statement. "The bottom line is that large-scale federal IT program failures continue to waste taxpayers' dollars, while jeopardizing our nation's ability to carry out fundamental constitutional responsibilities, from conducting a census to securing our borders."

In Britain, a string of costly tech project failures led to the creation of the cabinet level position of "Executive Director of Digital," currently held by Mike Bracken, who we talked with last fall.

"One of the issues that you have here, and other countries have, is the absence of a delivery capacity — the absence of being able to put your hand on teams of highly skilled, multidisciplinary technical and digital and policy people and deploy them at points of real urgency," says Bracken, of America's current government tech-deployment system. The Eshoo-Connolly bill calls for putting that team at the heart of government, with the new digital office out of the White House. Bracken calls this draft bill "a great start" in solving the delivery problem.

A few notable provisions in the bill:

  1. The Digital Government Office would have authority over all agencies' large IT projects. (Currently these are run by the individual agencies and not overseen by a tech-savvy office that knows what it's doing/buying.)
  2. It gives the Chief Technology Officer the power to hire people outside of the standard government pay schedule, allowing government agencies to pay people at salaries competitive to jobs in the tech private sector.
  3. The bill also seeks to increase competition for contracting work, which is currently a field made up of the same handful of players who tend to get expensive and often unsuccessful results. Currently, agencies have to go through a rigorous process to buy the work/start contracts for technology projects that cost more than $150,000. Projects smaller than that are comparatively simple to hire for and more agile companies bid for those. So the bill increases "small acquisition thresholds" from $150,000 to $500,000 — making it easier for government to buy small technology projects.

This won't be the final form the bill takes; it's only a draft right now. Lawmakers released it to invite discussion, which will be happening in the coming weeks and months.

Clay Johnson, a critic of existing government technology procurement processes, says he's excited.

"Having procurement reform happening means creating more opportunities, improving the way government can deliver services, and for thousands of small businesses, unlocking the largest customer in the world," Johnson wrote in a blog post.

Connolly says the bill pairs well with the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, known as FITARA, which passed in the House but stalled in the Senate. Connolly is a co-sponsor of FITARA, with his Republican colleague and sparring-partner, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. FITARA would give more authority to the chief tech officers within agencies, among other things.

The draft of the bill Eshoo-Connolly is available at this link.

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