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Let The Contractors In

Contractors deserve a voice in the series of upcoming TechStat review sessions the Office of Management and Budget has launched to fix high-risk IT projects across the federal government.

Contractors deserve a voice in the series of upcoming TechStat review sessions the Office of Management and Budget has launched to fix high-risk IT projects across the federal government.That sentiment comes from Trey Hodgkins, TechAmerica's VP for national security and procurement policy, in comments published by NextGov on Wednesday, where he said that both government and industy should be involved in TechStat sessions. But it's one that I happen to agree with, at least on a limited basis.

Now, there is a valid perspective that contractors shouldn't have undue influence on the decisions of the federal government about how to move forward, and there's probably some truth to the suggestion that in certain situations, the contractors probably got the government into situations where the projects now warrant priority review.

However, simply keeping contractors informed of what's happened and what's been decided in closed-door meetings isn't enough, nor is engaging the contractors in a dialogue separate to the one, in TechStat, that includes all other major IT and business stakeholders as well as the federal CIO. They should have a real voice. Not the predominant voice, but one that's heard at the same meeting where all the other stakeholders will be heard.

The truth of the matter is that in some agencies, there are more contractors than full-time employees and contractors who have more experience and understanding of certain projects than government officials do. Contractors essentially run the operations of any number of projects in government, among them several on the recently released list of high-risk federal IT projects.

That depth of involvement in federal IT demands that they have a seat at the table, not just a follow-up conversation with a deputy CIO. Since, in some circumstances, the contractors may have a deeper understanding of what's going on in their projects than do the feds, giving them at least a voice might impart information to the government stakeholders that might just help bring the project along.

That all being said, in no way does this justify TechAmerica's broader stances on the IT project reviews that the Office of Management and Budget has announced over the course of the summer. When OMB director Peter Orszag announced in June that OMB would be temporarily freezing financial systems modernization efforts as part of a review process, TechAmerica responded with overblown concerns of "a chilling effect on the marketplace."

As my colleague John Foley has noted, that's a self-serving argument. TechAmerica represents 1,200 member companies, including most of the largest systems integrators and tech companies. So of course it would want the flow of government spending to continue completely unabated, but that doesn't make the position right. Private industry cancels, re-baselines and re-jiggers projects constantly, and that certainly hasn't discouraged companies from pursuing business with the private sector, as TechAmerica suggested would happen with the financial system modernization overhaul.

However, despite that stance, which suggests that the industry might not always have the government -- and taxpayers' -- best interests in mind, government can't afford not to have all the stakeholders at the table (and not just those in the government) if it seriously plans to fix decades of building problems with how IT is acquired and managed.

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