Without IT Service, agencies are left to their own devices

Although the Brooks Act remains in effect for now, the General
Services Administration is sloughing off its systems procurement oversight authority like
so much dead skin.


The first wave came last month when--without the expected law change--GSA Administrator
Roger Johnson approved an organizational change dismantling the Information Technology
Service and shifting most of the ITS oversight staff to running GSA's own systems. Yes,
GSA still must grant agencies authority for any IT buy greater than $100 million, but
that's only a few dozen buys a year.


Agencies may relish no longer dealing with GSA's bureaucracy. But top GSA officials
warned that agencies had better be ready to undergo some reinvention of their own and
assume complete responsibility for their systems. Congress will be breathing down their
necks now, the agency warned.


"It's a new era. Agencies are about to get the freedom they've been asking for all
along,' said Francis A. McDonough, GSA's deputy associate administrator for IT in the
Office of Governmentwide Planning, Policy and Evaluation. "Procurement should no
longer be as big an issue. But it also means agencies can no longer blame GSA's oversight
policies, and agencies will have to deliver on the big systems.'


Only an unrelated Pentagon spending dispute has stopped President Clinton from signing
the bill that would repeal the Brooks Act and end GSA's 30-year reign as the government's
primary computer procurement watchdog. But rather than wait for statutory changes as he
earlier had said he would, Johnson launched GSA's portion of the oversight overhaul in
December [GCN, Jan. 8, Page 1].


Instead of focusing on procurement actions, GSA will use the new Office of
Governmentwide Planning, Policy and Evaluation to promote best management practices,
analyze trends and broker policy issues, he said.


Further, the agency will rely on its enhanced Federal Telecommunications Service to
fuel governmentwide service initiatives such as electronic messaging and to develop
communications policies and standards.


Johnson said the reorganization will leverage excellence across government, producing
better systems buying and management in all agencies.


"It's a matter of creating centers of expertise, as opposed to setting policies
and telling people exactly what to do,' Johnson said. "The real responsibility lies
with our commissioners, who are the people running the businesses. They now can turn to
smaller, more knowledgeable staffs for advice.'


The White House and Congress have endorsed the system management scheme proposed by
Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine). That plan would create chief information officers to replace
senior IRM officials, set up interagency review teams and eliminate GSA's central
oversight role.


Under this plan, which was attached as a rider to the vetoed Defense authorization
bill, the Office of Management and Budget would set agency IT budgets based on
recommendations from the CIOs, the Information Technology Acquisition Review Board (ITARB)
and Interagency Leadership Council (ILC).


Although the bill's future remains uncertain, OMB has said the government can achieve
most of the changes through executive order. That seems more likely now that Cohen and the
main procurement reform champion in the House, Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.), both will
retire this year (see story, Page XX).


Once OMB and the president draft these changes, GSA's oversight chores such as
approving large IT buys through the delegation of procurement authority (DPA) process and
conducting IRM management reviews will be rendered obsolete.


Robert Woods, FTS commissioner, said the moves were inevitable, given the mounting
budget pressures and the public's demand for more efficient services.


"We had always used management and organizational models based on the Brooks Act.
But we never subjected them to an acid test of quantifiable pay-offs and results,' Woods
said. "Now we're talking in much more real business terms. I also suspect this will
start weeding people out in other organizations because they can no longer answer the
question of what is your value by simply saying I can get something through the DPA
process.'


Although GSA has periodically modified its oversight procedures, dramatically
downsizing ITS was deemed political heresy until the National Performance Review advocated
rethinking all oversight mechanisms.


Plus, former Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), whose 1965 legislation vested GSA with the
government's computer procurement authority, fought early attempts to reorganize the
agency and grant agencies more buying leeway.


But Brooks' 1994 re-election defeat and the Republican takeover of Congress shifted the
debate from whether GSA should reduce its procurement tracking role to whether GSA should
retain any oversight responsibility.


Despite pending changes, McDonough and Woods vowed to remain at GSA, at least for now,
and said the agency will not abdicate its IT leadership role.


"We'll be a player in the IT Leadership Council and work with the Government IT
Services group and other organizations,' Woods said. "We'll also serve as a broker
and testbed for standards and new technologies. For example, if industry can't or won't do
a prototype test, then we might be able to get something going. But we will help keep
government going where it needs to be with industry's participation.'


McDonough, however, raised the pragmatic issue of whether the government can attract
enough IT professionals to the new CIO jobs for more than a two-year tour.


"The CIOs will need the legislative authority and should make a commitment for
more than two years. It shouldn't be a matter of coming into government and tinkering for
a couple of years,' said the career GSA official.


If recruitment and retention become a problem, it might undermine the new oversight
strategy, given how many senior IRM posts even now are empty.


The departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor and Agriculture, as well as IRS
and the Social Security Administration all have vacant chief IRM or CIO posts. And some of
these positions, like those at IRS and SSA, have been vacant for more than six months.


Johnson said he is confident the ITARB and ILC reviews will succeed because the new
review process requires explicit performance measures and plenty of front-end planning.
Agencies also do not want to risk extinction, he said.


"No matter what your politics, it's clear that the public is not satisfied with
the way the government has managed its programs, and we have to fix the basic approach,'
Johnson said. "If we don't deliver systems that work, the Congress will continue to
dismantle failed programs.'



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