Ed Hammersla

OPINION

Time to bury GOTS technology

They waste time, money and are inefficient

Federal CIOs haven’t exactly been kind in describing how the government pursues tech acquisitions. In December 2010, then federal CIO Vivek Kundra criticized the spending of some $600 billion on IT over a decade while accomplishing little of the productivity improvements that private industry has realized from IT. Too often, federal IT projects run over budget, behind schedule or fail to deliver promised functionality.

Then, Kundra’s successor, Steven VanRoekel, cited a need for more streamlined, business-minded resourcefulness, to build a better, customer-centric model that depends upon private-sector partnerships. And DoD CIO Teri M. Takai has indicated that the military remains obligated to pursue IT in the most budget-conscious and efficient manner possible, taking a cue from commercial IT innovation to improve tech’s efficiency, cost-effectiveness and environmental sustainability.

Of course, a push to implement a “less is more” IT approach – coupled with “why can’t we perform more like private industry?” introspection – is nothing new. The Clinger–Cohen Act (CCA) of 1996 mandated that government departments reduce the financial burden of IT operations and maintenance by 5 percent, and strive to operate like efficient, profitable businesses. Of course, that was a long time ago and, so far, those lofty goal targets have remained out of reach.

Perhaps not for long though. According to a forecast from Deltek, agencies will only spend $113 billion on IT by 2017, down from $121 billion in 2012.

All of these dynamics are turning up the volume in the “buy” versus “build” debate, specifically pitting the virtues of Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) solutions against the Government-Off-The-Shelf (GOTS) model. COTS represents the “buy” side of the equation, and GOTS favors “build.”

With GOTS, agencies purchase technology which is created by the government. In some cases, the agency itself takes on the endeavor to build a solution for its own use. But, in most cases, it buys an IT product that is created and made available by another agency. A private contractor will often step in to sell and integrate the product for multiple public-sector customers. Yet, all of the research and development takes place within an originating U.S. agency, on its dime.

While it’s an evolution as opposed to a revolution, many agency IT purchase decision-makers are concluding that it no longer makes sense to cling to an exclusive, GOTS-driven game plan.

Here are four reasons why:

Reports that GOTS is “free” have been greatly exaggerated.

Yes, it’s true that – if an agency has built a solution internally – other agencies can use it without additional costs. Still, this hardly means it’s “free.” Solutions have to be customized, upgraded and maintained. With COTS, agencies benefit from constant developmental efforts, product upgrades and maintenance cycles from the vendor. This isn’t the case with GOTS.

Yes, there are members of the government community who will argue that this advantage of COTS presents problematic issues, because agencies can’t control or plan around these cycles. However, this contention is outdated. Tech companies are now proactively forthright in publicly discussing their product/services roadmap with customers. These updates are conducted during annual user conferences held over several days, to clarify product direction, enhancements and future intentions. Smaller vendors will do this in smaller forums. All of which means that agencies are no longer “in the dark” about product development cycles.

Cost savings clearly favor COTS now. A major issue with GOTS is that it often involves the employment of personnel to make something that somebody else has already made. This epitomizes the very same, wasteful “reinvent the wheel” process which leaders have criticized in recent years. True, the acquirer may not directly bear the financial burden, in the circumstance that another agency undertakes the “build” part. But funding such a project within that originating agency when another, very similar commercial solution is up and running makes no economic sense and amounts to an unnecessary drain on taxpayers’ dollars.

Instead, the government can save considerable money and resources by purchasing COTS solutions, or working with private industry on specifications for solutions versus building them.

Quality control.

Unfortunately, after a government team invests a great deal of time on IT design, production and deployment, the long-awaited end result stands a very good chance of being outdated by the time it’s in the hands of users. This will never be the case with COTS, because businesses are continuously pursuing product improvements, responding to “always on” pressure to demonstrate distinct value from competitors.

Simply stated, it’s what tech companies do.

They hire specialized staffs to do nothing but add enhancements and updates to the product whereas the GOTS provider must fund their own “development” organization for this. In an uncertain economy, such funding is always subject to elimination without notice. Where does this leave the end user? 

Also, “build” isn’t a core IT competency of government. Its human assets are better directed toward mission-focused objectives, especially when there are COTS alternatives.

Need for speed.

COTS offerings get to users quicker because they’re already available, serving millions of users. Defense Department CIO Teri Takai has voiced support for a procurement system that encourages IT to be distributed at the “right time to the right place anywhere in the world.” This isn’t to say that customizations associated with COTS will naturally encounter a slight delay factor. But a COTS customization will be implemented far, far more swiftly than a GOTS deployment.

School’s out.

A GOTS team will have to constantly undergo training to keep up with all the advancements that are going on in the commercial sector. Why support a model which involves spending time and money on accumulating private industry-level knowledge – regardless of whether the GOTS team works within your agency or another one – when you can buy directly from private industry?

It’s clear that those federal CIOs are urging “better, cheaper, faster” technology. And where did this tenet originate? Within private industry. Given this, the superior advantages of COTS are difficult to overlook.


 

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