“Regular order” for government funding used to mean a systematic cadence of work by the appropriations committees and both chambers of Congress to fashion a spending bill before the start of the new fiscal year. I’ve been around Washington long enough to remember regular order in action and to see the fruits of that process. Unfortunately, “regular order” for the appropriations process has come to mean an annual display of gridlock by Congress and a failure to complete plans for spending, which undermines our IT modernization accomplishments like the Modernizing Government (MGT) Act and the White House’s federal IT modernization efforts.
This Congressional gridlock results in paralysis for agency planning and efforts for IT modernization and contributes to the current state of IT in the federal government. It also harms federal contractors and small businesses, increases costs and wastes taxpayer dollars, and hogties agencies and diminishes constituent services. IT modernization requires the ability to understand the technological options that are available to an agency and the ability to acquire these technologies while they are still relatively new. Without this flexibility, agencies are much less likely to be able to solve their challenges and deliver better services and capabilities at a long-term lower cost to taxpayers. But the “regular order” under which we live prohibits agencies from even planning to spend dollars unless they get appropriated.
The result is that agencies have no choice but to invest in making sure what they already own keeps functioning, even if it is woefully outdated. It also leads to spending about eighty percent, or $60 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office, on maintaining the tech we have, rather than modernizing that tech to face the 21st Century. Passage of the MGT Act is a good first step in the right direction, because it creates more options for agencies when it comes to funding for IT investment and breaks those dollars free from the annual “regular order” of dysfunction. But much more will be needed to make the updates necessary to protect citizen data, ensure government networks and adopt newer technological capabilities that can deliver greater services for citizens and provide better homeland and national security. Getting Congress to effectively appropriate in a timely manner would go a long way toward achieving those goals.
Contractors also feel the sting of the current “regular order” because they are required to maintain their capability, including all their personnel, even if the government shuts down and they cannot deliver goods and services. That’s operational investment that is lost to companies and small businesses that they cannot get back. While federal employees have always been paid back for time they were forced to shut down their agencies, contractors cannot bill for the same time. The result is that this annual funding instability drives greater risk into the federal market and costs to the taxpayers go up as a result. Is it any wonder that we see fewer and fewer companies willing to invest in the government as a customer and we find it harder and harder to convince cutting edge technology developers to bring their products and services to bear on government challenges?
No doubt most members of Congress would prefer to enact annual appropriations bills on time, rather than navigate the politics of end-of the year shutdown threats. Fiscal stability, however, has long been absent in Washington, getting rid of that threat and creating some consistency in fiscal planning would be a real boon to taxpayers and agencies, who would be able to effectively plan for the challenges they expect and the services and functions taxpayers demand. These things could change for the better, too, if we could find a way back to a real “regular order.”