Feds Consider Overhaul of Tech Project Approval Process

A proposed law would codify the position of chief technology officer and establish a Digital Government Office that would review all major federal technology projects.

by / January 29, 2014
U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. Flickr/US Department of Labor

The U.S. chief technology officer will have expanded power to review major federal IT projects if draft legislation being discussed on Capitol Hill becomes law.

The Reforming Federal Procurement of Information Technology (RFP-IT) Act would create a U.S. Digital Government Office (U.S. DGO) to conduct the technology project appraisals and help agencies develop specifications for, and award, contracts.  The bill would also codify the federal CTO position -- currently Todd Park -- and place the CTO over the U.S. DGO.

Authored by Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Gerry Connolly, D-Va., the bill is still in draft form and hasn’t been officially introduced. But the legislation intends to overhaul how the U.S. government tackles mission-critical technology projects by having high-level leaders guide them before they go over-budget or off-the-rails.

In addition, the act lifts the threshold for a streamlined contracting process from $150,000 to $500,000, which may enable more businesses to bid on federal IT work without additional compliance regulations and costs.

According to a press release on Eshoo’s website, federal procurement regulation is approximately 1,900 pages long, with each agency having its own “supplement” of rules that can run an additional 1,000 pages. The release also noted that studies show 94 percent of major government IT projects from 2003 to 2012 either failed, were over budget, or not completed on time.

“Our draft bill puts proven best practices to work by instituting a White House office of IT procurement and gives all American innovators a fair shake at competing for valuable federal IT contracts by lowering the burden of entry,” Eshoo said in a statement.

Government Technology contacted Eshoo’s office seeking an explanation on how a project would move forward under the RFP-IT Act. A representative said that a project being reviewed by the U.S. DGO can go a number of different routes.

If the office reviews a proposal and feels the agency submitting the project is equipped to handle it on its own, it’ll be authorized to go forward. But if the agency – in the U.S. CTO’s opinion – lacks the resources or experience, the project can assign a team to assist that agency with the process.

In addition to revising the IT procurement process, the RFP-IT Act also codifies the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. Established under President Barack Obama’s administration, the program connects innovators from the private sector, nonprofit organizations and higher education with government experts. Under the bill, the U.S. DGO would be able to use the fellows, and the program would be placed under the U.S. CTO.

More Red Tape?

Although the bill seeks to solve a problem, it does add another layer of bureaucracy to an already complicated system. But a spokesman from Eshoo’s office told Government Technology that the idea is for the U.S. DGO to be nimble and not hold up the process of approving contracts. He said the feeling is that a little extra time using best practices in the beginning of the procurement process could result in fewer failed and over-budget projects.

In an email to Government Technology, Rep. Connolly admitted the draft legislation is not perfect, which is why he and Eshoo are soliciting feedback from stakeholders. He added that there’s a tendency by some to criticize those trying to improve federal IT management without offering concrete solutions themselves.

“The question to ask those in the federal IT community who adopt a defensive posture and are quick to take shots at our discussion draft is simply this: Are you truly defending the status quo?” Connolly said. “Are you truly more afraid of new, innovative acquisition methods than simply muddling along as the federal IT graveyard piles up with billion-dollar boondoggles?”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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