Federal Government Still Struggling to Buy Smart

In 1996, then President Bill Clinton signed the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996 into law. Combined with the Federal Acquisition Reform Act of 1996, the two are colloquially known as the Clinger-Cohen Act, after the law’s respective House and Senate sponsors. Since then, the federal government has gone on to spend an average of $120 billion a year on various forms of information technology: hardware, software, networks, security, consulting resources, and program management, to name a few.

The vast majority of that spending goes into the coffers of private sector contractors, who build and maintain the IT systems, provide products and services, and even oversee, manage, and conduct testing and quality control over other contractors. At the time, a report from what is now known as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that in spite of the government being one of the largest single buyers of IT in the world, it wasn’t a very smart one.

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More than two decades later, the federal government is still struggling to spend its money wisely, pouring millions into maintaining legacy systems and failed modernization efforts, maintaining a slow and complicated procurement process, and depending on continuing resolutions for ongoing project funding. In order to become a smarter buyer, the federal government must strengthen its internal resources—including contracting staff, program, and project managers—as well take a focused approach to selecting technologies that are closely aligned with current and future operational needs.

Even with top-quality staff and an informed selection process, contractors tend to do a far better job of selling than government users do of buying. Buyers often look at a wide variety of offerings from multiple vendors, and while those vendors know exactly what they want, the federal government often doesn’t know exactly what it wants to buy. The procurement process is highly complex and faced with competing needs due to user issues, technical issues, budgetary issues, and even challenges from a Congress whose political role often takes a much shorter view than federal IT procurement needs.

Despite the challenges, the federal government can improve its skills as a large-scale buyer of IT products and services. Doing so will require an ongoing conversation between the federal government, the IT industry, and acquisition and program management executives to help streamline selection and bidding processes, as well as tying transformation success or failures to accountability for vendors.