Why OMB’s IT reform plan just might work

Will somebody in Washington be looking for an opportunity for government/industry and bipartisan cooperation in an area where we are currently spending $100 billion a year, i.e. real money?

The Office of Management and Budget has issued its -- dare I say? -- long-awaited report on improving federal IT, promised in the wake of the attention-grabbing time-out on new money for a number of struggling IT programs last summer.

The report is divided into four basic areas: lowering costs for commodity-type or lower-end applications buys (moving to cloud or consolidating data centers, for example), improving the acquisition of complex IT systems and changing the budgeting process to get better results. The report also emphasizes the importance of improved communication with industry, recommending a coordinated "myth buster" campaign to spread awareness that the procurement regulations actually encourage such pre-RFP communication.

The bottom line is that there is really a lot to like here. Some of the headline recommendations that have been emphasized in media accounts of the report -- such as moving towards modular development, improving IT program management, and improving communication with industry -- track almost identically the Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century report issued a few months ago by TechAmerica, the IT industry's trade association. (Full disclosure: I was co-chair of the panel producing this report.)

In addition, the OMB report includes a number of ideas that have gotten less attention in the media accounts. These include:

(1) About the most ringing endorsement I've seen in a while for the value of governmentwide acquisition contracts as an IT acquisition vehicle, especially for organizations that lack in-house specialized IT contracting skill.

(2) A call for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to develop contracting guidance on doing modular, agile software development, a necessary element of actually getting this change implemented.

(3) Support for industry-government IT exchange programs to help develop the skills of the government workforce (although I would have liked to see specific endorsement of temporary moves in the other direction, from industry to government, as well, as a way to allow talented private-sector people to do a stint of public service).

(4) The suggestion to make greater use of working capital funds to finance IT investments as a way to counter the rigidities of annual appropriations (although I am not sure where the revenues for such working capital funds would come before the application was up and running).

(5) Endorsement of cross-functional teams to develop IT projects (which, happily, goes in the opposite direction from recent changes in, for example, the Air Force to return contracting folks back into a contracting stovepipe).

(6) An online marketplace where agencies with excess data center capacity can sell it to agencies needing additional temporary capacity.

The question -- also asked when the TechAmerica report came out in November -- is why there is reason to believe that these recommendations, a number of which have been around for years, might actually get implemented this time. To put it mildly, nothing is certain, but here are a few possible reasons why:

(1) The report gives deadlines (and deadlines that are not years into the future) and owners for each recommendation, which promotes tracking and responsibility.

(2) The tech industry is behind the recommendations, not just the government, so there is a real potential for cooperation and synergistic activities.

(3) Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has spoken in favor of the report, as has Tom Davis, former chairman of the committee and a mentor of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee -- all of which eases the partisan politics on this.