Will Cohen changes improve government buying IT practices

As everyone knows by now, the 1996 National Defense Authorization Act has repealed the
30-year-old Brooks Act.


In its place, we have a new law for information technology projects and procurements.
Perhaps we should continue tradition and dub the changes the Cohen Act after their
champion, the retiring Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine.)


Effective Aug. 8, the new regime commences. The General Services Administration no
longer will oversee government IT buys. Even now, GSA is phasing out its procedures for
delegating authority for specific purchases. Under the new law, agencies will never again
have to ask for GSA approval.


Along with GSA's authority will go the bid protest jurisdiction of the GSA Board of
Contract Appeals. Another casualty is the governmentwide IT guidance, the Federal IRM
Regulation. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy already has announced that it will
discard most of the FIRMR. GSA, however, retains authority over the FTS 2000 program and
will coordinate the follow-on procurement for the next-generation FTS.


Replacing the former GSA framework is a new order, headed by the Office of Management
and Budget. Unlike GSA under the Brooks Act, OMB does not have sole authority to procure
IT resources. OMB can retaliate, however, against a poorly performing agency by reducing
its budget. And, reminiscent of the Brooks Act, the Cohen Act lets OMB take away an
agency's procurement authority by naming an "executive agent" for contracting.


Under the new law, OMB has the dauntless task of developing and overseeing a process to
analyze, track and evaluate the risks and results of all major IT acquisitions by
agencies. The Cohen Act aims at a "performance and results-based management"
system.


Agencies must set specific goals for the IT equipment or systems they field. Then they
must compare performance results to the projections. OMB is ultimately in charge of this
whole process. Although great emphasis is placed on quantified measures of productivity,
the new law misses a great opportunity to mandate these same measures for the source
selection process.


Other aspects of the new law are Brooks Act holdovers. Multiple agency contracts are
authorized, in both mandatory and non-mandatory forms. But OMB designates the lead agency.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology still will issue technical standards,
which can be countermanded by the president only.


The Cohen Act also mandates the creation of chief information officer posts in
agencies. Although CIOs are supposed to help agencies implement IT programs effectively,
they have not been given any new power along with the responsibility.


Whether the CIO concept will live up to its expectations remains to be seen. Often, the
success of such agency IT czars depends on the personality and resources of the CIO, along
with the amount of power or moral suasion he or she can wield.


Another Cohen Act innovation is modular contracting. This is an alternative to the
current preference of some agencies for single huge contracts or "grand design"
projects. With modular contracting, an agency's IT needs are supposed to be satisfied
"in successive acquisitions of interoperable increments." The new law authorizes
Federal Acquisition Regulation changes to implement this incremental buying concept.


The Cohen Act places a great deal of emphasis on the quantifiable benefits of IT. If it
works as designed, we will have a more efficient and effective government. It is up to OMB
and the agencies to make that happen. Congress proposes, but the bureaucracy disposes.


Joseph J. Petrillo is an attorney with the Washington law firm of Petrillo &
Associates.


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