Congress passes IT overhaul

By the end of July, the Brooks Act will be history.


After languishing because of a presidential veto, the 1996 Defense authorization bill
that repeals the law was resuscitated and approved by both the House and Senate.


At press time, President Clinton was awaiting the bill for signature. White House and
congressional aides said he would sign it into law.


All along, administration officials insisted that the president vetoed the original
version of the Defense bill despite the IRM and buying reforms provisions, not because of
it.


The IRM reforms, penned by Sen. William J. Cohen (R-Maine), squelch the 1965
legislation that set computer acquisitions apart from other procurements and established
the government's basic IT buying policies.


The bill officially kills the General Services Administration's oversight role in
systems buying and makes the Office of Management and Budget the chief overseer of IT
procurements, budgets and policies. In recent weeks, GSA has been dismantling its IT
Service, the unit with governmentwide IT procurement authority, so the bill's passage is
anticlimactic on that front.


Also, GSA last year increased blanket buying authority for agencies to $100 million as
the bill requires. OMB will preapprove only the handful of systems buys that exceed that
ceiling.


The bill also heralds a fundamental shift in the vocabulary of government computing. No
longer will agencies focus on information resources management. Instead, the bill requires
the appointment of chief information officers in all Cabinet agencies. It recommends that
other agencies name CIOs as well.


The Cohen changes also clear that way for stripping from federal regulations any unique
rules for computer purchases. The bill will abolish the GSA Board of Contract Appeals'
authority to hear all federal IT bid protests and require that vendors lodge all systems
contract protests with the General Accounting Office.


As part of broader buying changes added to the bill by Rep. William Clinger Jr.
(R-Pa.), it will do away with additional restrictions on the purchase of commercial items.
These changes follow on the reforms in the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994.


The provisions will take effect 180 days after the president signs the bill.


"While the private sector increases its efficiency by downsizing, advancing
leading-edge technologies and decentralizing, the federal government remains saddled with
a 1960s-style procurement system: centrally planned, expensive to operate, and heavily
laden with paperwork requirements and bureaucracy," said Clinger, chairman of the
House Government Reform and Oversight Committee.


The bill's passage drew initial praise from vendors and agency officials.


Wushow "Bill" Chou, deputy assistant secretary of Treasury for information
systems, said the changes will put less focus on the procurement process and more focus on
the results of those buys.


"The new bill is based on results," Chou said. "In some sense, it will
make our job more accountable." Agencies will have to demonstrate that the benefits
of IT buys outweigh the costs, he said.


The bill instructs agencies to undertake business process re-engineering reviews and
set up performance measures for their IT investments. OMB is authorized to halt any
program that falls more than 10 percent behind its performance targets.


"What we as procurement reformers are trying to do is to change the system so the
procurement system can be a servant of the information technology processes--oriented
towards results, rather then an inhibitor," said Steven Kelman, administrator of the
Office of Federal Procurement Policy.


How all the changes will shake out is yet to be seen, but the bill will shift the
emphasis from how buys happen to what is being bought, vendors agreed.


"We've been so obsessed by the process for the last decade. I think that era is
over," said Donald W. Upson, vice president of strategic programs for systems
integrator PRC Inc. and a former senior congressional committee staffer.


Olga Grkavac, vice president and head of the systems integration division at the
Information Technology Association of America, said she would wait to see how the law is
transformed into rules before passing judgment. "In the past we have been
disappointed with the way the regulations have been written," she said.


Kelman said the next step is to write simplified procedures based on the bill's
requirements. "The language in the statue is fairly vague," he acknowledged, but
the implementation should be "fairly straightforward."


Because agencies will have more freedom to deal directly with vendors, one
congressional aide suggested that the bill will benefit larger companies that have staffs
available to develop personal contacts with agency decision-makers. Smaller companies are
the big losers, the aide said.


But Upson said the market would support vendors of all sizes. "When you look at
what's going on in our region [el1] small, medium and large businesses in the
high-technology industry are starting up all the time. They're thriving. They're
changing," he said.


Bert M. Conklin, president of the Professional Services Council, said the size of the
company doesn't make a difference, but he predicted the reforms would benefit hardware
makers who no longer must provide detailed cost and pricing data.


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