Fed's problems with PCs start with how they're bought
- By Cynthia Morgan
- Sep 04, 1995
A computer can be a nightmare long before it lands on the desk,
government users said in an exclusive GCN survey of computer reliability. How you buy can
be just as important as what you buy, they told us. That's because a federal PC's origins
affect it throughout its working life. A well-managed purchase and good vendor relations
lead to responsiveness later when problems arise. Conversely, bureaucratic procurement can
make that difficult or impossible, government buyers said.
"Acquisition is by far the biggest problem we have with PCs" was a typical
comment in written responses and follow-up calls. Asked what could be done to improve
reliability and support of new PCs, 42 percent called for better procurement procedures.
Most users, of course, couldn't care less about how a PC was bought as long as it
works. Even so, buyers' degree of involvement in the procurement seems to affect
subsequent satisfaction. The same people who were indifferent to sourcing turned out to be
the least satisfied with repair and maintenance. Those who had more control over
purchasing experienced less trouble down the road.
Many users who participated actively in buying blamed poor quality of PCs or service on
the practice of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder.
That produces a "real mix in terms of quality, support and performance," said
H.F. Kiefer, a cost estimator with the Army Corps of Engineers in Hoboken, N.J. "We
have almost no control over what comes in. To get a specific brand we have to go through
all sorts of justification."
The difficulty of PC acquisition often leads users to accept less than they need. A
desire to avoid anything that smacks of sole-source buying aggravates matters.
"In the Air Force, I once had to rewrite a request for bids because the equipment
was so new, only one contractor could meet the requirements," said a respondent who
now works for the Justice Department. "The contracting office made me reduce my
requirements so two vendors could bid. I had a guy who could get me what I needed, but I
still couldn't buy it."
The problem has trickled down to local governments as well. "Being a government
agency, we buy the computers that are cheapest up front, with our hands on our hearts,
thinking we're doing Uncle Sam a favor," said Dudley Dewell, a systems administrator
with the Housing Authority of Portland, Ore. "But we truly pay for it at the back
end" in repair charges, spare parts purchases and labor costs, to say nothing of lost
productivity, Dewell said.
Experienced employees regard bureaucracy as part of the process and adjust
expectations--and schedules--accordingly. The Federal Aviation Administration's Office
Automation Technology and Services contract "has performed pretty well for us,"
said Craig Buma, an FAA air traffic control specialist.
"I get systems in a couple of months, which is pretty good around here. The
contractor [AT&T Global Information Solutions] takes only about three weeks to get us
the order. The rest of the time it's going through the red tape here, but we make
allowances for that," Buma said.
One support technician said his users are envious when they see an on-site contractor
receive a state-of-the-art machine exactly as ordered, within days, while a federal
counterpart at the next desk waits weeks or months for a less advanced system.
"We call it "PC envy,' " he chuckled. "Our guys walk in the door to
install it, and that's when we find out what we ordered. When you don't know what your
operating system's going to be until the nth hour, it makes planning kind of tough."
Often, federal PC purchases are delayed as much by managers' ignorance of technology as
by lengthy procedures. "We're dealing with the mainframe, Cobol-forever people, what
I call the "buyout' generation,' " one systems analyst said. "All they know
about is Bill Gates. How do you explain the difference between Seagate and Micropolis
drives to someone like that?"
Michael Gautier, information manager for the Army's Equal Employment Opportunity Office
in Washington, agreed. "At the senior decision-making levels, PCs still are
relatively new," he said. "It's hard to explain the difference between first-
and third-tier quality. We really need better oversight, because Contracting often knows
next to nothing about PCs."
An Agriculture Department programmer said her contracting office is at a loss when
purchasing leading-edge products. "There's a big education process that goes on when
you decide to buy new technology," she said. "If you're going to meet your
requirements, you're the one that has to go out and find the companies, get the prices,
really spell it out for the contracting office."
One Defense Department employee who asked that his name not be used said some
decision-makers don't check the market before they buy. "My boss's boss bought 1,000
486/33s for $1,800 apiece," he said. "I could get a Pentium at the local
warehouse store, quantity 1, for that price. Don't these people ever go shopping? They
asked the vendor, "Is this a good price?' and the vendor said yeah, and that's the
extent of their research."
However, a Justice Department official commented, "We've come a long way from
where the same guy who bought the toilet paper in the morning bought your PC at night.
Four years ago he couldn't tell the difference between a 286 and a 486. Today the guy you
deal with may know better."
Salvador F. Lara, senior systems analyst at the Air Force Military Personnel Center,
Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, said keeping the contracting office informed can make all
"We ordered some Pentium clones that were pretty trashy. One even caught
fire," he said. "We told the contracting officers, and everyone decided not to
buy off-brands again."
Support technicians prefer buying name brands when they can get them. One pointed out,
though, that while generic PCs are "kind of a crapshoot," a good local
clone-maker can be far more responsive than a distant corporation. "Small problems
are quickly fixed if you have a local vendor you know," said Tom Lowe, an engineer at
the Forest Service's Sierra National Forest.
A little more than a third of our survey respondents buy PCs through indefinite
quantity-indefinite delivery contracts (IDIQs) such as the FAA's OATS, Air Force Desktop
IV and the Army's Small Multiuser Computer contract. Buying through a well-run IDIQ can
cut "as much as a month off the purchase process," a contracting official said.
"If our clients can use an IDIQ at all, we'll go that way."
Several cited Desktop IV, held by Government Technology Services Inc. and Zenith Data
Systems, as an example of a best-of-breed IDIQ, largely because of rapid turnaround and
current, name-brand products. They praised GTSI's IBM PCs.
At its best, an IDIQ offers the luxury of well-known equipment and streamlined
procedures. "What you see on the next desk is what you get," one user wrote. But
IDIQs aren't available to every government user; 58 percent of respondents turned to
General Services Administration schedule, 8(a) contracts, small competed buys and
An IDIQ purchase, though convenient up front, can bog down in red tape when it comes to
service and repairs. "We don't use them much, because you have less clout when things
need to be fixed," a DOD administrator said. "There's a pre-set process you have
no control over, so if you need stuff in a hurry you're going to be disappointed."
Unless contract managers actively pursue technology refreshment, the contract's
products quickly can become overpriced and outdated. And lowest-common-denominator
specifications won't meet the needs of high-powered users.
"We've had pretty good reliability with the ZDS and GTSI Desktop IV machines, but
the problem is, they're pretty basic. We just need more juice," said Donald E.
Reichert, Washington health and welfare officer for the Army's drug and alcohol program.
The need for "more juice" was a common complaint about bundled
configurations. Bundles, popular for standard office software, don't work for users of
computer-aided design, geographic information systems and advanced computer graphics
tools. They need fast, well-engineered hardware free of bundled bells and whistles, such
as built-in sound systems.
Federal offices have extensive networked inventories of legacy equipment, requiring
buyers to pay special attention to compatibility. "It's nice to be on the leading
edge but boy, can you get burned. We routinely wait a year before buying a new
technology," Reichert said.
"The government has to stay conservative. When you run into compatibility issues,
it reverberates through the entire network," Gautier said. "It's our
responsibility to spend the taxpayers' money, and we can't afford to hit the bleeding edge
without a Band-Aid. At home maybe I'll try something new, but at work we stay cautious and
don't buy on the fringe."
At the high end, the choice of buying avenues gets restricted. Some vendors know this
and take advantage of it, respondents said. "If it's a small business, they'll just
about kill for you," Gautier said.
During the days of Air Force Desktop III, he said, the vendor took a week to deliver
printer ribbons. "You think a mom-and-pop shop would make you wait a week on a lousy
printer ribbon? No way," Gautier said.
Increasingly, feds are using the clout of huge purchases to gain veto power over
unresponsive vendors. "We had problems with a local superstore and just stopped going
there," Gautier said. "About a year later they said, "Where are you?' We
said, "Where were you when we had problems?' I think they got the message."
Staying flexible appears to be the key to successful PC procurement. Gautier, who
participates in planning Army purchasing strategies, believes PC technology is moving too
quickly to make any hard and fast rules about buying.
"The rule that you don't buy Pentium for the average user was valid a while back.
Now it's ridiculous," he said.