26 years after Clinger-Cohen, the government still struggles to be a smart buyer

Gettyimages.com/ Steven Puetzer

But the IT industry can play a critical role in helping agencies make better decisions and use technology to save costs and be more efficient.

First in a series of commentaries looking at how the government can be a smarter buyer and how industry can help. Clinck here for part two.

The federal government spends almost $120 billion each year on information technology – on networks, software, hardware, consulting resources, security, program management, and so on.

Many of those dollars go to private sector contractors, who provide these products and services, build and maintain the systems, even manage, oversee and conduct testing and quality control of other contractors.

One former federal CIO at the Office of Management and Budget commented that if one looked at the total workforce involved in federal IT, close to 70% of them would be private sector employees.

The legislation that created the CIO position in government was the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996, more commonly called the Clinger-Cohen Act after the respective House and Senate sponsors of the law.

It was inspired by a report from the now Government Accountability Office entitled "Computer Chaos." The report noted that the government is the largest single buyer of IT in the world, but in spite of its size and scale it didn’t appear to be a very smart buyer.

The IT acquisition process was marked by weak oversight, a lengthy and complicated procurement process, the continued presence of old, obsolete computer systems, billions wasted in failed IT modernization efforts – in sum, the government is spending billions in today’s dollars to buy yesterday’s technology. But this is 2022 – 25+ years later.

Or is it later the same day?

No agency in government today would survive for very long without IT. So how can government become a better buyer? And how can companies become better partners – and hence more successful sellers – to their government partners? These are complicated issues, likely requiring a book-length treatise.

But let’s start the discussion with some initial offerings in the hopes of stimulating a more fulsome dialogue, one that will bring in some of the better minds from industry as well as government IT, acquisition and program management executives. Government faces many challenges in making informed IT acquisitions.

A number of them have been well documented in reports and studies -- a shortage of experienced contracting staff and project/program managers, a lengthy, complicated procurement process, annual budgets for multi-years initiatives, uncertainties caused by continuing resolutions, and so on.

Let us add just a few more.

Technology is a hot topic today. Everyone wants to invest in technology – the newest, the most cutting-edge, the one most talked about. While government is sometimes accused of defining the trailing-edge of technology, it isn’t immune from these pressures.

When one of the authors served in government, among his greatest dreads was when a senior appointee visited Silicon Valley and came back having seen a demonstration or visited a lab. “We should be using that here," came the word from the secretarial suite.

Agencies at times buy technologies when they are still in an early stage, not yet ready for deployment or not mature enough to operate on the scale that government requires. Or they buy technology because it’s “new” or “hot” instead of because it makes business sense or can address a business problem. Some have called this “technophilia."

Another challenge is that even with a top-quality contracting officer and informed selecting official, contractors generally sell better than government users buy.

Why is that?

Contractors know exactly what they want – to sell at the highest price and the minimum risk. They have a single focus. Government buyers often aren’t sure what they want to buy. They are looking at a host of offerings from multiple vendors.

Selecting officials have many other responsibilities in their agency. They may play such an important role only a few times in their career. Finally, acquiring IT is an inherently complex endeavor, one that can have implications throughout an agency or an entire department.

There are user issues, technical issues, budget and financial issues, administrative issues and often Congressional issues. It is a very complicated process and mastering that process isn’t a common skill.

For the next article in this series, we turn our attention onto industry to look closer at the conventional wisdom of what leads to success for contractors and the truths not said often enough but should be.

Alan Balutis is the president of APB Ltd and managing partner with the CIO Collective. He's also a former senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems Inc. 

Dennis Lucey is a vice president with TKC Global, part of the Akima family of companies. He has over 40 years of business development experience in the federal market.