Written by Dave Nyczepir and John Hewitt Jones
A group of technology companies and trade lobby groups has written an open letter to the Biden administration, calling on it to ensure federal agencies follow existing preference regulations for commercial software and technology procurement.
In the letter, which was sent on Wednesday, the companies requested also that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provide specific updated guidance to agencies on the issue.
Agencies are required by federal law to adopt existing private-sector tech and software solutions, where practicable, rather than developing custom-built solutions.
Salesforce, Palantir, Splunk and DataRobot were among the signatories to the letter and were joined by trade groups including the Alliance for Digital Innovation, the Silicon Valley Defense Group, and the Alliance for Commercial Technology in Government.
“Many federal agencies continue to favor custom-built, more expensive solutions, even when there are proven, widely available commercial solutions that, in many cases, can be modified to meet unique requirements,” the companies said. “As a result, many technology companies conclude that it is too difficult to work with the government.”
By failing to enforce the regulations, the federal government often misses out on the cutting-edge tech developed in the private sector. “Rather than miss out on private sector innovations, the government should consistently enforce laws and policies that give preference to commercial software and technology solutions and support these domestic industries, including startups and small businesses,” the letter says. “We specifically request that the OMB provide clear guidance to federal agencies to make certain that the existing statutory requirements for commercial preference are followed.”
Under statutory requirements, federal agencies must buy commercial technology and software when “reasonably practicable.” This is codified in the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA), which was passed in 1994.
Private sector representatives say that such legislation is necessary because in-house federal agency development projects have a high failure rate and redundancy created by such programs has a huge cost for the U.S. taxpayer.
Speaking to FedScoop, executive director of the Alliance for Digital Innovation, Matthew Cornelius, said technology companies had “stepped up” to provide COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and information solutions during the past 15 months, and that they want to see a continuation of pandemic spending momentum on commercial solutions.
“There’s already a lot of building blocks in place, where the administration needs to embrace this chance to buy commercial first,” said Cornelius.
The trade group leader added that too often broad IT modernization efforts burden contracting officers with lists of requirements that see recompeted contracts awarded to the same vendors because it’s “comfortable and easy.”
Mac Thornberry, former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and member of the Silicon Valley Defense Group’s board of advisors, said commercial tech adoption is key to “preparing for great power competition.”
“If it is really urgent, and I think it clearly is, the government has to act like it,” Thornberry said. “That means acquiring systems now that are tested and proven and can be readily adopted, rather than waiting — sometimes for years — to build systems from scratch that may never work and are likely to be outdated if they do.”
Dave Vorland, executive director for the Alliance for Commercial Technology in Government, said: “You find out during a crisis what technology works and doesn’t work and it is consistently commercial software that responds best when government efficiency is most critical — as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.”