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Thu November 21, 2013
All Tech Considered

How HealthCare.gov Is Giving A Once-Obscure Bill A Boost

Originally published on Thu November 21, 2013 10:42 am

As federal tech launches go, it's not just HealthCare.gov that didn't take off. A report from IT research firm the Standish Group finds that 94 percent of federal IT projects come in late, over budget or get scrapped completely.

President Obama focused on the issue of procuring technology for the federal government in a recent interview.

"The biggest gap between the private sector and the federal government is when it comes to IT: how we procure it, how we purchase it. I actually think that once we get this particular website fixed, there are going to be some lessons learned that we can apply to the federal government generally," Obama told NBC News.

But thanks to HealthCare.gov, the otherwise wonky topic of federal procurement reform is getting new momentum. And the renewed focus is giving a once-obscure House bill a boost. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, is getting another look with help from strange political bedfellows.

"Federal IT has always been behind, but federal IT has also spent the money to not be behind. So you can't blame it on a lack of money," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

Issa chairs the House committee investigating HealthCare.gov and is the co-author of FITARA. One reason he says the issue is important is because the federal government spent $82 billion last year on technology projects, with mixed results.

"Everyone wants something that does well and costs the American people less. And the $82 billion we spent on IT is not well spent today and it's a management organizational problem," Issa says.

To address the management problem, FITARA puts the role of chief information officer, or CIO, at the heart of federal agencies, giving those officials more budget authority, power and prominence.

"[When] you prevent the proliferation of CIOs in name only, you begin to at least have a point at which somebody knows that if they're called on the carpet for a failure, they will own that failure," Issa says.

He says more accountability attracts stronger candidates for those jobs. And stronger CIOs could mean better written contracts that make it harder to get away with doing bad work. In pushing this bill, Issa not only has the prominent current IT failure to point to, he has a dedicated partner.

FITARA's co-author is Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat.

"It is unusual," Connolly says of the partnership.

On almost every other issue, Connolly not only disagrees with but quite publicly opposes Issa.

"I will admit it probably raised some eyebrows here in [Washington] that Issa and Connolly got together on anything — but on this one we both feel passionate," Connolly says. His Northern Virginia district is notable for being home to more federal IT contractors than any other. So FITARA is a priority for his constituents.

Besides strengthening CIOs, the bill clarifies current law that allows for open source, or more transparent, software solutions. He hopes that makes it more appealing for smaller companies to bid on projects.

"We haven't updated federal IT acquisition and procurement rules in a quarter of a century," Connolly says. "Now in the world of IT, fast-moving IT ... that's a millennium. So it's about time, it's long overdue that we reform the system and try to make it more responsive, more accountable, more effective."

After all, the Internet was first created inside the federal government — so it can do innovation sometimes.

Right now, the next move on FITARA is up to the Senate. The House passed it in June without much fanfare as an amendment to a defense bill. Various senators — from both parties — have included parts of FITARA as amendments to existing bills in the upper chamber. With that kind of movement, Connolly thinks it could become law.

"I think it's probably the best bill we're gonna get out of this Congress. It would be a terrible missed opportunity if the Senate doesn't act on this bill," he says.

A fairly broad, bipartisan bill out of this Congress sounds like a lofty goal, but the unexpected does happen. The unusual pairing of the bill's two co-authors as a good example.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, let's find some lessons in a modern-day political nightmare. It's the rollout of HealthCare.gov, a website vital to the new health insurance law. President Obama says that after the mess of that website is fixed, it may be time for the government to learn better ways to buy information technology, or IT. The problem may boost a formerly obscure bill in Congress, as NPR's Elise Hu reports.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: As federal tech launches go, it's not just HealthCare.gov that didn't take off. A report from IT research firm the Standish Group finds that 94 percent of federal IT projects either come in late, over budget, or get scrapped completely, a stat Congressman Darrell Issa is familiar with.

REP. DARRELL ISSA: Well, federal IT has always been behind, but federal IT has also spent the money to not be behind. So you can't blame it on a lack of money.

HU: Issa is the California Republican who chairs the House committee investigating HealthCare.gov. He's the coauthor of Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. It's called FITARA, for short. One reason it's important is because the federal government spent 82 billion taxpayer dollars last year on technology projects, with mixed results.

ISSA: Everyone wants something that does well and costs the American people less. And the $82 billion we spent on IT is not well-spent today, and it's a management organizational problem.

HU: To address the management problem, FITARA puts the role of chief information officer, or CIO, at the heart of federal agencies, giving them more budget authority, power and prominence.

ISSA: And you prevent the proliferation of CIO's in name only. You begin to at least have a point at which somebody knows that if they're called on the carpet for a failure, they will own that failure.

HU: Issa says more accountability attracts stronger candidates for those jobs. And stronger CIOs could mean better-written contracts that make it harder to get away with doing bad work. In pushing this bill, Issa has Healthcare.gov as an example of what went wrong, and a dedicated partner.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY: Every day's a holiday.

HU: FITARA's co-author is Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat.

CONNOLLY: It is unusual.

HU: On almost every other issue, Connolly not only disagrees with, but quite publicly opposes, Issa.

CONNOLLY: I will admit it probably raised some eyebrows here in town that Issa and Connolly got together on anything. But on this one, we both feel passionate.

HU: Connolly says his Northern Virginia district is notable for being home to more federal IT contractors than any others. So FITARA is a priority for his constituents. And besides strengthening CIOs, the bill clarifies current law that allows for open source - or more transparent - software solutions. He hopes that makes it more appealing for smaller companies to bid on projects.

CONNOLLY: We haven't updated federal IT acquisition and procurement rules in a quarter of a century. Now, in the world of IT - fast-moving IT, that is - you know, that's a millennium. So it's about time. It's long overdue that we reform the system and try to make it more responsive, more accountable, more effective.

HU: After all, the Internet was first created inside the federal government, so it can do innovation. Right now, the next move on FITARA is up to the Senate. The House already passed it in June, without much notice. In light of Healthcare.gov, Issa's hoping it gets through both chambers.

ISSA: These are not partisan issues.

HU: Connolly thinks it could happen.

CONNOLLY: I think it's probably the best bill we're going to get out of this Congress. It would be a terrible missed opportunity if the Senate doesn't act on this bill.

HU: A fairly broad, bipartisan bill out of this Congress sounds like a lofty goal, but the unexpected does happen. There's the pairing up of the bill's two co-authors as a good example.

Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And you hear her right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.