The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) is expected to help modernize the government by establishing new technology and acquisition policies that reduce duplication and drive significant cost savings. It’s an effort to streamline and strengthen how government buys and manages technology that is long overdue.
More than 75 percent of the government’s IT budget, or about $62 billion, is spent solely on maintaining legacy IT systems, according to the Government Accountability Office. Obsolete software and hardware are expensive, inefficient and time consuming to maintain, and they do not allow government agencies to be agile enough to compete in today’s rapidly changing marketplace.
Whether or not you are a fan of FITARA, it’s hard to disagree that agencies should embrace modernization. Although requests for information and proposals should be the starting point for that transformation, they have become a shelter for the status quo — a place where innovation goes to die.
People have a natural tendency to stick with what’s comfortable. Thus, regardless of the intent of FITARA, progress will be slowed because acquisition professionals will stick with the familiar in terms of vendors, architectures and technologies.
In fact, current RFIs and RFPs still call for the same old stuff. A prime example is the data center space, where solicitations require expensive and inefficient three-tiered architectures rather than the new scalable, simple and less costly hyperconverged solutions used in the world’s largest data centers.
Furthermore, a standard that might have been an undisputed high priority only a year or two ago could be considered antiquated today. For example, Fibre Channel connectivity might sound efficient, but those requirements are in fact obsolete and no longer exist in the scalable, agile infrastructures used by the largest, most efficient data centers.
With technology changing so rapidly, federal IT leaders cannot possibly be expected to stay abreast of all that is available. Therefore, it’s not uncommon or unexpected for vendors to know more about which requirements are truly critical and which ones have been superseded through innovation. However, when one vendor says a particular requirement is obsolete and can be fully replaced with a newer, more efficient technology and another vendor says the opposite, how can federal IT professionals know what’s true? And without knowing that, how can they safely drop the “obsolete” requirement without creating risk for their initiative?
Similarly, although a requirement might have been necessary years ago when certain software was written, it’s possible — even probable — that the software will run as well as or better atop newer technology. But if new technology uses new techniques and terminology, asking for the obsolete capability by the old terminology could eliminate those more modern and effective technologies.
There are multiple ways to address those conundrums. Some require behavioral changes while others are more tactical in nature. For example, legacy applications should be tested on the latest technology platforms in advance of solicitations, so that when the solicitations are written, agencies know whether the old documentation is no longer useful.
If FITARA is to succeed, RFIs and RFPs must be the wide-open doors through which new technology passes — not the gates that block it. And for that to happen, IT leaders must be able to discern obsolete standards from necessary ones. Congress should strongly consider financial support for Federally Funded Research and Development Centers to help agencies answer those questions, so that future solicitations can make optimal progress toward more efficient federal data centers. And agency IT leaders should make clear to their teams that only those who embrace innovation will be rewarded.