Reforms by Congress to how agencies buy technology are increasingly unlikely. Industry experts are holding out little hope that multiple bills attempting to fix long-standing problems with IT acquisition will actually get passed before the end of the year.
Trey Hodgkins, the senior vice president for public sector at the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS), said there are two reasons for this growing doubt.
The first is because of the congressional calendar. Lawmakers are around for two weeks in September, and then by early to mid-October they will head back to their districts to campaign before the mid-term elections in November. Then, there is lame duck session in December, meaning the focus may be on a handful of the most important bills, such as another continuing resolution or the Defense authorization legislation.
Hodgkins said the second reason is a more typical one.
“The most significant impasse is how do these authorities apply at the Defense Department, and determining how to make that work that is satisfactory to the Armed Services committees as well as also satisfactory to the Oversight [and Government Reform] and the Homeland Security [and Governmental Affairs] committees,” he said during a media briefing Wednesday in Washington. “There are some conversations going on. They are trying to resolve it. I think the most viable legislative path forward is as part of the Defense bill process. But it has to reach a point of resolution because last year you had some differences of opinion and the way the process worked out, it fell out of the final bill.”
The authorities under debate specifically focus on the role of agency chief information officers. The version of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) that the House passed is very different than the version marked up in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
A roadmap to reforms in the works
And, both of them are different than a simple provision in the Defense Authorization bill that applies only to the DoD CIO, which would create an undersecretary for management, who would be both the CIO and deputy chief management officer.
Hodgkins said ITAPS supports a lot of what FITARA wants to do as well as the change Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) wants to make in the Defense Department related to its CIO.
Hodgkins said the provision changing the position of the DoD CIO is most likely to get through Congress because it’s included as part of the Defense authorization bill, and is focused solely on DoD so the potential of lawmakers objecting to it is small.
So that leaves whole scale IT acquisition reform from Congress as a next year event.
“I think a lot of people are pitting their hopes on and are very optimistic about the House Armed Services Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee process,” Hodgkins said. “It was a similar process that matured to become the wholesale review that occurred in the 1990s that led to Clinger-Cohen and Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, and a lot of other game changing acquisition reforms of that era. So I think a lot of people are focused on that as sort of the strategic review of getting to the root problems and trying to address it.”
Hodgkins is referring to the joint effort by the House and Senate to look at DoD acquisition reforms, and the results from that effort likely will bleed over into the civilian world.
ITAPS is more confident in the efforts by the Office of Management and Budget around IT reform. Hodgkins said the TechFAR effort by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, and some of the workforce initiatives to train program managers are among the efforts the association is paying close attention to.
No shutdown this year?
So if IT reform isn’t a high priority on lawmakers’ agenda, the fiscal 2015 budget is.
The House has passed seven of 12 spending bills, while the Senate has been less active approving no appropriations bills so far.
Hodgkins said ITAPS is expecting two-and-a-half month continuing resolution to begin 2015 and get the government through the elections.
“Military Construction would be a vehicle for a continuing resolution, and MilCon would also be a vehicle for an omnibus, which is what the current thinking is. They would come back from the elections and work on the omnibus,” he said. “The speculative part about this is there certainly is a plausible scenario that the Republicans take the Senate and they decide they don’t want to pass something and block passage of a bill. They try to get passage of an additional CR into early January, and then they come back with two Republican controlled chambers and could pass a different omnibus and send it to the President. At this point in time, it’s still a possibility given the electoral outcomes.”
Hodgkins added the likelihood of an omnibus spending bill for 2015 is strong and if Congress can get its act together by January, it would give agencies and contractors about nine months to plan and spend their budgets.
The one big issue ITAPS sees on the horizon is the return of sequestration in 2016. Hodgkins echoed a lot of what other experts believe that Congress has no desire to end sequestration so vendors and agencies are preparing now for the expected cuts that are coming in two years.
So as Congress focuses on spending bills, there are several executive branch efforts underway to improve the IT acquisition process.
Alliant 2 to pilot cyber recommendations
One of the ones ITAPS is working on is around supply chain cybersecurity.
DoD and the General Services Administration issued recommendations in January to improve the security of IT hardware and software as part of President Obama’s cybersecurity executive order.
Erica McCann, a manager of federal procurement at ITAPS, said GSA is looking at the Alliant 2 governmentwide acquisition contract as a way to test out some of the concepts outlined in the document.
“They sort of see this as a way to put their words on paper into action so ultimately this is a good way to figure out what they are promoting is a good way to prevent a supply chain risk or a cybersecurity risk at the first gate in the whole process, which is the acquisition,” she said. “It’s a good way to test it. I think industry is still trying to figure out how it gets tested and what it means for the companies on the contract so that’s why we continue to talk with them.”
DoD also is addressing the supply chain cyber issue as part of its job under Section 818 of the Defense authorization bill from 2013. ITAPS is watching how it gets implemented.
Hodgkins said ITAPS would like to see agencies go through their mission areas to decide the biggest risks in their supply chains and then ask vendors to address those risks.
Questions rise over government competing with industry
Another area ITAPS is watching closely is the move by several agencies to bring in IT talent to work on specific projects, such as GSA’s 18F and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Buyer’s Club.
McCann said the Federal Acquisition Regulations already gives contracting officers and program managers flexibility to do agile or iterative IT development so they are watching these offices closely.
Hodgkins said there is concern about whether 18F or the Buyer’s Club will encroach in industry opportunities.
“We’ve had conversations with them on what their intents are. We know, for example, 18F intends to expand. They want to position staff in every office where GSA has a regional office. They want to make these capabilities broadly available. They want to incorporate the skills that can be brought to bear through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. So they’ve shared some high level objectives they’ve established for themselves,” he said. “But there’s some things that aren’t as clear about how this works together, and how does it work in the context of a public sector market where companies are already competing to do some of the same things. Those are the things that aren’t as clear.”
Along those same lines, ITAPS also is watching the government’s efforts around strategic sourcing and how it will affect large and small businesses. Hodgkins said included in that are GSA’s continuous improvement efforts around the schedules and GWACs.