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6 Ideas for Federal Tech Reform

By Steve Ressler, Founder of GovLoop

It was recently reported by the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is working on a technology reform agenda. In the wake of the difficult HealthCare.gov roll-out, there’s been a lot of discussion on how to improve tech procurement and delivery.

Photo credit: Barack Obama via photopin cc

Photo credit: Barack Obama via photopin cc

As such, I thought I’d write my 6 ideas on tech reform.

1) Build Internal Capacity: According to the WSJ, the Obama administration is considering the creation of an internal tech division, similar to the U.K.’s Government Digital Service. I think this would be a great start. I’d do this by expanding programs like the Presidential Innovation Fellows program and the CFPB design and development fellowship. Top talent applies for these 2-year fellowship programs as they are simple and concrete, and perfect for a brief tour of duty in the public sector. The White House can leverage direct hiring authorities that already exist for the Pathways programs and IT security hires, then expand, as needed.  Once created, don’t forget about marketing these programs. Agencies should attend college career fairs and relevant tech conferences, and use social media and other online promotion tools.

2) Modernize Existing Programs: Honestly, there are several programs that already exist to help technology reform, but they are just underutilized. For example, SBA has numerous programs to help small businesses start working in government and each agency has a small business unit and reports on their percentage each year. Unfortunately, these programs aren’t well marketed to cutting edge tech firms and often are still pretty clunky. Simplifying, modernizing, and marketing these programs would go a long way on very little work.

3) Venture Based Procurement: In the venture capital world, there are generally multiple stages of investment (friends and family, Series A, Series B, Series C). At the early stages, there are lots of bets on companies and technology, but they are small. Then in Series B – D, there is doubling down on what works. We should break out large IT procurements in a similar way. Instead of one big $10M procurement, spend $500k up front (5 winners at $100K each), then $1.5M for next steps (2 winners at $750K each), and then $8M for the winner.


4) Support the Current Federal IT Community: One of the first things we should do is leverage the existing government IT staff we have so we can learn from each other. The CIO Council currently serves that role, but it’s primarily for CIOs and Deputy CIOs, helping 50-100 key leaders learn and connect. However, it isn’t the best forum for tens of thousands of IT leaders. Digital Government University and the #socialgov community are shining lights of how this can be done, but that is just for one aspect of IT (mostly consumer-facing web).

Don’t recreate past mistakes and think this is a tech issue, then spend millions creating new collaborative systems (for instance, the Fedspace experiment that never got traction). Like the venture approach, give out $100 to $150K grants to 5-8 associations and organizations (like ACT-IAC, GovLoop, others) with broad objectives on what you want accomplished and scale investment on what works.

5) Advance the Death of Paperwork: When you work on a government project, I’d guess 60-70% of the cost goes to a variety of paperwork documents (OMB 53, OMB 300, a project plan, system lifecycle documents, etc.) and reporting up the chain. Let’s eliminate unnecessary steps, when possible, and automate the important documentation so we aren’t re-entering the same information in ten different places and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on paperwork drills. More time and money should be spent on creating a great product that serves citizen rather than on approvals and paperwork.

6) Upgrade the Training of IT PMs: Most of the training for IT project managers is traditional PMI and PMBOK project management. The same is true of acquisition training; it’s often standard courses that have been around for years. If you really want change in IT and acquisition, you have to train the government leaders in the new concepts and align incentives. Make it about product management versus project management. How about a new IT bootcamp requirement similar to the Code for America bootcamp where participants learn about user interfaces, design thinking, agile development, and more?  Don’t try to build all this training in-house. Create a template of what you want taught, carve out a training budget and establish standard compensation you provide to trainers (for example $200 for every student that goes through your bootcamp).

I’m excited to see the attention being focused on improving IT talent and acquisition in the federal sector. It will be interesting to see what changes end of being implemented.

What’s your idea for federal tech reform? Comment below!