EDITOR'S DESK: Time to confront the elephant in the room

Tom Temin

At a recent conference, an industry executive made a surprisingly frank comment about the state of systems development under federal contracts. Responding to requests for proposals, he said, industry typically promises the government it will deliver extreme levels of operational efficiency, leading-edge technology and transformation of the organization.

'Let's really do that,' IBM Global Government's Tom Burlin admonished the mixed government-industry audience.

What happens too often, he said, is 'we simply update existing applications and make sure we don't break anything.' The audience chuckled because the comment hit home for both sides.

He didn't mean IBM specifically. He meant, rather, that the government-industry complex often seems stuck in a pattern of trading specifications rather than performance requirements, of ordering technology instead of solutions.

Use of nice-sounding boilerplate words like 'best practices' or 'conforming to industry benchmarks' often substitutes for rigorous thinking about performance. Program managers and their supporting casts are hoping industry will divine meaning in a document that only sounds like a performance-based request.

Much as government leaders like to announce publicly that they need the input and expertise of industry, they would be surprised to find out how timid people at many companies are about challenging the government on a poorly thought-out request for proposals. Who likes to tell a customer they're doing things wrong?

Not confronting vagueness is how you get fiascoes like the FBI's Virtual Case File project. As GCN's Wilson P. Dizard III reported recently, the FBI issued 399 change orders in one 15-month period. That's how you get to the weird phenomenon Burlin described.

Neither side is trying to deceive the other. The phenomenon is more an e

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