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Botched Healthcare.gov rollout energizes IT reform efforts

Dec. 1, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
US-POLITICS-HEALTH
A woman reads the HealthCare.gov insurance marketplace site Dec. 2. President Obama called the IT procurement system a 'systemic problem' in the wake of the botched rollout of that website. (Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images)

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The failed rollout of Healthcare.gov has put a spotlight on federal information technology procurement reform and given renewed energy to reform proponents, according to members of Congress and outside experts.

Part of the attention comes from President Obama, who called the IT procurement system a “systemic problem” in a Nov. 14 speech.

“The federal government does a lot of things really well, but one of the things it does not do well is information technology procurement,” Obama said.

The rocky launch of Healthcare.gov has elevated a House-passed IT reform bill called the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act “from relative obscurity to prominence in the halls of Congress,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., in a statement to Federal Times. Connolly is a co-sponsor of the bill along with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The legislation would increase the authority and responsibility of agency chief information officer s to oversee budgets and cut ineffective programs, and create “centers of excellence,” which would work within agencies to draft better IT program requirements and streamline the acquisition process.

The House passed the bill in June. A Senate version of the bill, introduced by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., has yet to be approved by the Senate.

The Senate is expected to vote on the Shaheen bill this month as an amendment to the annual Defense Department authorization bill. Connolly said the Healthcare.gov problems are in part responsible for generating more attention and consideration for Shaheen’s bill in the Senate.

“My colleagues are beginning to recognize that mismanaged IT investments transcend the Affordable Care Act, and that Healthcare.gov is a symptom of a broader disease: the broken federal IT procurement process,” Connolly said.

He said there is “bipartisan outrage” at the way agencies procure IT systems and how the government struggles to manage its IT infrastructure.

Shaheen said in a Nov. 20 statement the problems with the Healthcare.gov site highlight the need for IT procurement reform.

“What we’re doing right now is outdated, expensive and inefficient,” she said.

She said the legislation would boost accountability and help increase oversight of federal IT programs.

Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the Professional Services Council, which represents service contractors, said there have been lot of options to reform IT procurement over the last few years but Healthcare.gov has created momentum where there had not been before.

“The Healthcare.gov website has galvanized Congress, the executive branch and stakeholders to work cooperatively,” he said.

Chvotkin highlighted other legislation to strengthen the federal CIO Council and require better IT reform as possible ways to help reform IT procurement. He added it is important to keep politics out of federal IT procurement, which contributed in part to the struggling Healthcare.gov.

On Oct. 29, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel said the website was a “teachable moment” for agencies and should be used to help analyze internal processes. Agencies should ensure they are developing IT projects faster and cheaper to avoid technical issues, he said.

He said agencies should “get very aggressive” about reforming many aspects of how they operate, and to think daily about the best ways to improve.

Steve O’Keeffe, founder of public-private IT partnership MeriTalk, said federal IT procurement is not usually a hot topic in political circles, but it’s now a topic of debate and attention.

He said Congress and agencies should look to best practices in the private sector to determine how to best proceed with IT reform, including how to control costs.

“If we are failing now, what is the downside of trying something different?” he said.

Roger Waldron, president of The Coalition for Government Procurement, an association of federal vendors, said part of the problem is the length of the acquisition planning and requirements phase.

He said agencies should set up “centers of excellence,” where procurement officials can exchange advice on the best practices in requirements writing, and reduce acquisition times.

Waldron said agencies should engage in more performance contracting, where an agency sets a goal and the private sector works to provide a solution through a variety of technologies and programs.

But the time to pass meaningful IT reform may be limited, according to Allan Friedman, a research director at the Center for Technology Innovation and the Brookings Institution.

“This is a narrow window where the news cycle is aware of federal IT acquisition,” he said.

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