Another View: Reinventing the wheel on taxpayers' dime

Bill Shook

In a misguided effort to protect past technology investments, government agencies continue to develop software and other product solutions that already exist in the commercial sector.

Intentional or not, these actions not only contradict the Federal Acquisitions Streamlining Act (FASA) of 1994, but are a barrier to success for the commercial applications the government claims to support.

There are many examples: Troops in Iraq need body armor, among other supplies. Yet the government continues to spend millions of dollars researching, developing and marketing its own systems while proven solutions are available through commercial sources.

The IRS promotes its own tax preparation software program despite various commercially available products. And the Agriculture Department has developed animal tracking software that competes with commercial systems already in the marketplace.

In a time of mounting deficits, this is a decidedly imprudent use of federal funds, which would be better spent on basic research rather than developing government products that compete with commercial ones. While the government is good at many thhings, hardware and software development are not among them.

Still, many government agencies maintain an internal development philosophy at taxpayers' expense. Rather than asking whether they are acting as good stewards of the taxpayers' money, many government buyers elect to build solutions internally, assuming the cost will be less than it would be to buy. This logic is faulty and na've, because the total costs of development and support are almost never properly estimated.

Worse, it leads to wasted resources and unfair competition with commercial companies. And it is contrary to statutory requirements that establish a clear preference for relying on commercial items to meet government needs.

Congress enacted FASA; now it must support that law with action.

Commercial technology solutions exist to solve the problems that the government has designated as top priorities. Homeland security, for example, requires software that will facilitate the timely sharing of classified and secure information among local, state, and federal intelligence and response agencies. That technology is available in the commercial marketplace today.

To be fair, some agencies recognize the economic and administrative efficiency promoted by FASA and they are using commercial solutions every day. Others need to be reminded of the higher goal'getting the best solution, quickly and at the lowest cost.

When government needs a better mousetrap, FASA requires it to look to the commercial marketplace'not compete with it.

Good stewardship of government resources dictates that government agencies comply with FASA and shift R&D budgets toward areas that are beyond the scope and grasp of the commercial sector. For example, Fortune 500 companies don't launch missiles. Development of missile guidance systems is an area where government R&D efforts would be more wisely spent, given that the commercial sector is unlikely to do it on its own.

The government should stop spending money developing any system that can be purchased commercially from the private sector. Not only would this meet the letter and the spirit of the law, it would elevate the spirit of invention and place a priority on fair play. Perhaps more critically, it would allow existing technology to be deployed today to meet urgent demands for tightened national security.

Bill Shook is a partner in the law firm Preston Gates Ellis LLP and an adjunct professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law.

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