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Glitches, Delays in Rollout of Healthcare.gov Website May Spark Broad Reforms in How the U.S. Government Purchases IT

Michael McGill

14 November 2013

In a press conference today announcing changes in the implementation of the Patient Protection And Affordable Care Act, President Obama leveled possibly his harshest, highest-profile criticism of the system that the U.S. Government uses to purchase information technology (IT).  The problems and delays surrounding the implementation of the Healthcare.gov website have shined a public spotlight on the procurement process.[1]  In fielding questions about the glitches in the website, the President described the procurement system as “cumbersome, complicated, and outdated.”[2]  He said that “[o]ne of the things” the Federal Government “does not do well is information technology procurement,” suggesting that the problems with the website were not an outlier but the result of “a systematic problem that we have across the board.”[3] 

Glitches, Delays in Rollout of Healthcare.gov Website May Spark Broad Reforms in How the U.S. Government Purchases IT

The federal IT procurement system is, by no means, a new target for the President.  Procurement reform has long been on the President’s agenda and among his stated priorities.  The President’s 2008 campaign was touted for leveraging the capabilities of the IT that was commercially-available at the time.  Although not a new message, today, the President stressed that the procurement rules impeded his Administration from using IT as efficiently and effectively as his campaign was able to:

“And so this isn’t a situation where on my campaign I could simply say, who are the best folks out there; let’s get them around a table, let’s figure out what we’re doing, and we’re just going to continue to improve it and refine it and work on our goals.  If you're doing it at the federal government level, you're going through 40 pages of specs and this and that and the other, and there are all kinds of laws involved, and it makes it more difficult.  It's part of the reason why, chronically, federal IT programs are over budget, behind schedule.”[4]

What does this mean for the chances of real procurement reform?  That remains to be seen.  The IT industry and many within Government have long called for a fundamental overhaul of the way in which the Government purchases IT products and services.  It is probably fair to say that the Administration’s efforts to date have been relatively modest—especially when compared to the broad reforms of the 1990s.[5]  The President essentially acknowledged this today.[6]  While the problems with Healthcare.gov may have pushed procurement reform higher on the President’s agenda, he has indicated—not surprisingly—that his first priority remains focusing on the implementation of the PPACA.  Yet the President’s comments suggest that he ultimately may push for substantial reform, an issue that could garner bipartisan support and provide an opportunity for cooperation between the Administration and both houses of Congress.  That will depend in part, of course, upon the details of the reforms, a subject the President did not broach today.   

We will continue to follow developments in this area and keep you updated on any specific reform proposals. 

 


[1]           Critics, for instance, have questioned the Government’s source-selection process and its post-award oversight, especially as the October 1 deadline for the system to “go live” approached.

[2]           The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Press Release “Statement by the President on the Affordable Care Act” (Nov. 14, 2013), available at http://m.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/11/14/statement-president-affordable-care-act.

[3]           Id. 

[4]           Id. 

[5]           For instance, the Obama Administration implemented an “Accountable Government Initiative” designed to reform how the Government procures and administers its IT systems.  (That initiative was led by the Administration’s then Chief Performance Officer, Jeffrey Zients, who has been tasked to help resolve issues with the website.)  The Administration has insisted that the system must be sufficiently flexible to allow the Government to accommodate new technologies, to hold contractors accountable, and to drive greater value.  One of the Administration’s most notable actions in this area has been its decision to terminate certain large IT projects that were viewed as unsuccessful.

[6]           See id.  (“And one of the -- when I do some Monday morning quarterbacking on myself, one of the things that I do recognize is -- since I know that the federal government has not been good at this stuff in the past -- two years ago, as we were thinking about this, we might have done more to make sure that we were breaking the mold on how we were going to be setting this up.  But that doesn't help us now.  We've got to move forward.”).  

Michael McGill

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