Wednesday, December 25, 2013

In Tech Buying, U.S. Still Stuck in Last Century

But despite Mr. Obama’s promises in the last two months to “leap into the 21st century,” there is little evidence that the administration is moving quickly to pursue an overhaul of the current system in the coming year.

Outside experts, members of Congress, technology executives and former government officials say the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website is the nearly inevitable result of a procurement process that stifles innovation and wastes taxpayer dollars. The Air Force last year scrapped a $1 billion supply management system. Officials abandoned a new F.B.I. system after spending $170 million on it. And a $438 million air traffic control systems update, a critical part of a $45 billion nationwide upgrade that is years behind schedule, is expected to go at least $270 million over budget.

Longstanding laws intended to prevent corruption and conflict of interest often saddle agencies with vendors selected by distant committees and contracts that stretch for years, even as technology changes rapidly. The rules frequently leave the government officials in charge of a project with little choice over their suppliers, little control over the project’s execution and almost no authority to terminate a contract that is failing.

“It may make sense if you are buying pencils or cleaning services,” said David Blumenthal, who during Mr. Obama’s first term led a federal office to promote the adoption of electronic health records. But it does not work “when you have these kinds of incredibly complex, data-driven, nationally important, performance-based procurements.”

The Standish Group, an information technology firm, deemed just 4.6 percent of large-scale government contracting projects executed in the past decade to be successful. More than half were “challenged,” and about 40 percent simply “failed.”

Multinational companies with large legal teams are often successful at winning years-long government contracts. But officials say technology innovation — particularly on web-based projects like the health care site — is often found in smaller firms, like many in Silicon Valley, that lack the size and the know-how to navigate the costly procurement maze.

“It’s a punishing and punitive environment to work in,” said Stan Z. Soloway, the chief executive of the Professional Services Council, a trade group, and a former Clinton administration official.

Officials said the administration was conducting a “review of options” for improving the government’s use of technology and was beginning to discuss the issue with stakeholders inside and outside government. But they declined to say whether Mr. Obama would call for changes in how Washington delivers technology projects during his State of the Union address early next year and whether the White House had any specific plan to make good on the president’s oft-stated interest in tackling the thorny, bureaucratic issue.

“This administration has made considerable progress in reforming federal I.T. management practices,” said Steven Posner, a spokesman for the White House budget office, citing new open-data and cloud-computing initiatives. “As the president made clear, significant challenges remain in the area of federal I.T., and we need to continue improving the way we deliver technology.”

In Mr. Obama’s first term, the administration pushed agencies to move away from expensive, dedicated hardware by adopting more flexible and cheaper Internet-based services when possible. Officials also began requiring agencies to replace proprietary data with modern open formats that can be easily understood by the public and the private sector.

But lawmakers and others said the Obama administration was doing too little to fix the fundamental problems, and they predicted that the issue would ultimately fall to Mr. Obama’s successor.

Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, said the budget office, formally known as the Office of Management and Budget, refused to back bipartisan legislation that would consolidate responsibility for technology projects in a single person at each agency and increase the transparency of government spending on technology.

“O.M.B. takes the position, as it usually does, that we don’t need legislation to address these issues,” said Mr. Connolly, who represents a Washington suburb with hundreds of federal technology contractors. “O.M.B. was really our biggest stumbling block. It was maddening.”

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