Are Clear Goals the Secret to Better Federal IT Acquisition?

The 10 most outdated legacy government IT systems cost taxpayers more than $337 million annually to keep running, with many operating with known security vulnerabilities, according to a Government Accountability Office report. While many of the risks associated with these legacy IT systems would be mitigated through modernization, including updating coding language and employing cloud capabilities, agencies face major obstacles in IT modernization.

For example, one major impediment to rapid, comprehensive IT modernization across the federal government is a dated IT procurement system. Although the federal government is working toward implementing more advanced capabilities and agile approaches in their IT operations, without a faster and more efficient IT procurement system agencies remain stuck with slow progress and unresolved security vulnerabilities.

Federal IT leaders today have access to a multitude of technology frameworks, techniques and methodologies to inform their acquisition strategies. Fusing those resources with a focus on outcome-oriented solutions provides agencies with the flexibility to avoid being pigeonholed into solving X problem with Y tool. By prioritizing outcomes over prescribed tools and mandated processes, agencies can be more creative in solving problems, maximizing time and investment, and targeting mission-specific needs and capabilities.

Establishing an outcome-oriented procurement structure may initially be a challenge, especially when it comes to acquisition processes, workforce and culture, but it can streamline and integrate all of those elements while also resolving security and budgetary concerns, including those outlined by the GAO.

Eyes on the Prize: Prioritizing Outcomes when Defining Requirements

At the majority of federal agencies, officials often struggle to define exactly what they are looking for when they start the acquisition process – an issue exacerbated by an evolving technology landscape with seemingly endless options. However, defining requirements is a critical part of the procurement cycle, with direct impact on the end result.

By prioritizing outcome-oriented goals at the start of the process – when writing those key requirements – IT leaders can better meet mission-specific needs with the right solutions rather than one-size-fits-all tools and techniques.

Developing clear requirements takes time, effort and, most importantly, a comprehensive understanding of the problems at hand. Clearly defined outcomes help potential industry partners better understand the goals, particularly in regard to modernization, enabling them to focus on designing solutions tailored to distinct agency and mission needs. To that end, the federal government would benefit from transitioning from a “scope of work” to “scope of objectives,” so they are solving real problems rather than simply adhering to a rote process.

At the Department of Homeland Security, officials are successfully making strides in modernizing multiple IT infrastructure systems and services, achieving $1.6 billion in cost savings, among other benefits, by moving to private cloud services. These improvements, which also bolster security and streamline the IT supply chain, wouldn’t be possible without collaboration between industry, IT teams and procurement officials to effectively define requirements. By working together to identify priorities and evaluate modernization requirements, DHS leaders were able to clearly define, establish and execute a customized IT acquisition strategy.

Shaping the New Procurement Workforce

Collaboration across internal teams and with external stakeholders is central to an outcome-oriented procurement process. Achieving that level of cooperation, and implementing effective strategies derived from it, requires agencies to empower their workforce with outcome-based training and policies that foster acquisition know-how.

However, developing an acquisition-savvy workforce is not an easy task. It’s well-documented that the federal acquisition workforce is declining in numbers, including at the Department of Defense, where career procurement pros are being replaced by younger workers inexperienced in the complexities of federal acquisition.

This is problematic for numerous reasons. According to the Professional Service Council’s 9th Biennial Acquisition Policy Survey, 90 percent of respondents rated acquisition workforce capability as the most crucial factor to successful acquisition, but 75 percent percent described the hiring process as difficult. The workforce is further strained by shortages in skill sets, budgetary uncertainty and shifting mandates.

Nonetheless, PSC’s survey highlighted optimism in the acquisition workforce. Newer generations of personnel are building on their skills, and leaders across the government increasingly are recognizing the importance of – and investing in – acquisition expertise. The resulting sharper, better-performing workforce will support agencies in improving their buying processes and implementing more modernized IT operations.

As agency leaders prioritize outcomes in their acquisition processes and hone their procurement workforce across the government, they’ll in turn increase competition, drive innovation and accelerate modernization. While the process may not be easy, it will help agencies transform more effectively, achieve cost efficiencies and prime an acquisition workforce with the best and brightest. Federal IT leaders should consider this an imperative for the future of government modernization.

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Beth Gomolka is the Director for the National Security Practice at Excella, an Agile consulting, IT modernization and analytics company. In this role, she oversees the delivery of large scale IT modernization programs in the Federal Government. She is also responsible for developing and implementing plans to drive growth. She has over 17 years of consulting experience and holds a master’s degree in engineering and innovation management.

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