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Stop the Federal Government COTS Madness

Appian Contributor
May 11, 2012

The Federal Government's poor IT performance is an old story, but it got renewed attention this week because of two new documents. The first was Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel's release of his final "Shared First" strategy document which sets guidelines that should lead to better returns on IT investment. The other event was a memo from Lesley Field, Acting Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy. Ms. Field laid out steps to make it easier for vendors to provide input and education so government can make smarter technology buys.

So much positive news in the space of a week had me feeling optimistic that we are on a path to stop wasting tax payer money and bring effective IT systems to government. But my good mood ended when an e-mail hit my inbox with fresh evidence of some of the thinking and behaviors that have caused the Federal government's IT investments to significantly underperform.

Here's some background. The first Federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, introduced a 25 Point Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management in 2010 because of the sorry state of affairs that existed with government IT systems. Kundra noted in the introduction to the plan, "despite spending more than $600 billion on information technology over the past decade, the Federal Government has achieved little of the productivity improvements that private industry has realized from IT."

The uncertainty around Federal contracting rules is one reason for this poor performance. Both government officials and vendors have been unclear as to what type of communication is sanctioned and what is not. This has kept government IT leaders' knowledge of latest technologies and adoption strategies behind the times. The attention brought by the 25 point plan has spurred other parts of the government to rally and help. Ms. Field's memo titled, "Myth-Busting 2: Addressing Misconceptions and Further Improving Communication During the Acquisition Process" is one example. Ms. Field notes in the memo, "Early, frequent, and constructive engagement with industry leads to better acquisition outcomes, which is why it is one of the key tenets of the Office of Management and Budget's 25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT Management." Ms. Field went on to say further that, "Agencies appreciate industry's valuable input into their acquisition strategies and solicitation packages because it may result in a better solution to their requirements. Suggesting detailed solutions to your concerns is even more valuable."

The e-mail that turned my excitement to mush contained a newly released pre-RFP for a major Federal IT system. The buyer sent out the pre-RFP to learn as much as possible about commercial best practices so it could adopt the best strategy to convert its legacy information systems environment into an agile and flexible operation. I thought, "Great! Here's an agency that really wants to learn and is being proactive ahead of a major purchase." But my heart sank when I continued reading and found this sentence, "The agency has determined that the best approach for systems modernization is to use a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solution rather than transforming its legacy systems." By specifying COTS, the agency had greatly restricted the field of possible solutions.

Things actually got worse from there. The pre-RFP goes on to detail lots of specific functionality that the buyer says must be already available in the solution. This sounds like a logical approach to purchasing, but it is way behind the times for IT systems selection. By following this approach, the buyer is falling into an all-too-common trap that's been a significant contributor to the $600B of ineffective government IT spending.

Let me explain. The problem with the approach of limiting choices to COTS applications and evaluating them based on specific functionalities is that to have a successful selection, you need to document every known requirement and predict future requirements. Not only does this require lots of work, it's really an impossible task. Users of IT systems often don't know what they want (or what's possible) until they get to start using new technology. They really need hands-on experience before they can identify their most important requirements. Evaluating COTS vendors based on specific functionality has shown to be equally flawed. A full evaluation could determine that certain features are present in a particular product (allowing it to get a "check in the box"), only to have users realize six months after implementation that they didn't ask for what they really wanted. Now they are stuck.

So I'm going to accept Ms. Field's invitation and begin my education for Federal IT buyers right here and now. There's one thing I can say that I believe will radically change the performance of Federal IT systems and it's this: Stop the COTS madness!

Leading private sector companies like, CME Group, and Crawford have already awoken to the fact that COTS products are attractive because they seem to do all or most of what you need, but in reality they fall short. What looked good in a demo often has great limitations in practice. I can hear what's going through your head right now, "So you just ask the vendor to make a change to the product to fit your needs." Good luck. Buyers of COTS applications all wake up to the fact that they are just one of many customers, each of whom wants changes to fit their needs. What's a typical COTS vendor, who has to look out for the interests of its shareholders, going to do? They have to make hard choices about which customers to make happy and which to leave to find their own solutions. How do I know? Because I've worked for a number of COTS companies and I've seen this play out many times. I was even the leader of Product Management at some of these companies and it was my job to make the hard decisions.

Instead of coming to an RFP with a COTS mentality and a long list of requirements to check off, Federal IT buyers need to create their RFPs around these principles:

    • Ease of adapting a technology to fit evolving needs outweighs any list of current functionality

    • You must get economies of scale from any purchase so you can avoid additional software license costs for your next set of needs and give your users the benefits of working from one platform

    • Your organization, not the vendor, must have the ability to make adaptations on their own

    • Easy movement between cloud and on-premise deployment is a must-have

    • Built-in native mobile functionality on all major platforms is a requirement so the need for separate mobile applications can be eliminated

    • Social collaboration must also be built-in to help shorten process cycle times

These principles support the goals of the 25 point Federal IT reform plan. When Federal buyers adopt these principles, they will find themselves drawn towards business process management technology (BPM). Over 35 Federal agencies are already experiencing great success with Appian's BPM software, including the Defense Information Systems Agency, FDIC, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, FDA, FEMA, The Library of Congress, and Defense Acquisition University. It's time to stop the COTS madness and join them.

Evan McDonnell

Vice President of Solutions

Evan McDonnell