December 13, 2013, 2:45 PM — Critics of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' botched deployment of HealthCare.gov can point to a series of management mistakes, but many observers point to a more systematic problem with government IT contracts.
The U.S. government IT procurement process is broken, critics say, giving agencies little flexibility to make changes in projects and little incentive to look beyond the lowest bids. In some cases, including Healthcare.gov, a long period of time elapses between the contract award and work starting.
The problem isn't new, with dozens of failed government IT projects in the rear-view mirror and several IT groups calling for reforms going back years. But the problems with HealthCare.gov have prompted renewed calls for IT contracting reform.
"The current process of managing and acquiring federal IT is largely broken and the failure of [HealthCare.gov] is simply the newest reminder of that dysfunction," Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, wrote in a November blog post.
The list of U.S. government IT project failures is a long one. Fixing the problem, however, won't be easy because there's far from universal agreement about the direction going forward.
One of the problems, according to many critics, is that U.S. agencies get locked into inflexible contracts, sometimes years before the actual work is done. In the case of HealthCare.gov, the HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services awarded the contract to Canada-based firm CGI Federal in late 2011.
While Web development hasn't changed significantly since 2011, developers may have been able to use some newer interfaces not named in the original contract, said Michael Hettinger, vice president of the Public Sector Innovation Group at the Software and Information Industry Association.
"The government's great at buying yesterday's technology today," he said, voicing a common criticism of government contracting.
In many cases, the contracts are too focused on what technologies should be deployed and not on what problem needs to be solved, added ITIF's Atkinson. "The process has become so bureaucratic, and the agencies have so little flexibility," he said in an interview.
Procurement officers are often most concerned with awarding the lowest-cost bids, and not on the vendor that could do the best job, critics said. Add in a lack of training for procurement officers and that's a recipe for problems, Atkinson said.
Procurement officers "may be good at buying pencils, but they're not always that good at buying complex IT systems," he added.