Has anything changed now that Brooks Act is defunct?

After conceding the California gubernatorial race, the defeated candidate shot this
famous barb at the press: "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore."


And now that the Information Technology Management Reform Act is law, it looks like we
won't have the General Services Administration to kick around anymore.


With the repeal of the Brooks Act of 1965, a.k.a. PL 89-306, GSA's oversight powers
have become a not-so-fond memory. With GSA out of the way, agencies are accountable only
to the Office of Management and Budget, the National Institute of Standards and
Technology, the General Accounting Office, the inspector general, other White House
offices and many congressional committees.


What will agency IT managers do with all their new freedom? Life will be a little
simpler, but not much. For many agency IT managers, GSA's reduced role means one less
overseer to kick them around.


Actually, don't count GSA out just yet. ITMRA left the acquisition policy powers of GSA
undamaged. In many respects the Brooks Act was superfluous. No one would admit this until
the then-chairman of the House Government Operations Committee lost his re-election bid
for failing to promise assault weapons on the gun racks of every pickup truck in his Texas
district.


Law and GSA regulations have always required competition, whether "full and
open" or "maximum practicable." Sole-source procurements have always been
discouraged, regardless of what is bought. The Brooks Act was essentially redundant. With
the repeal of the Brooks Act, GSA continues to write the Federal Acquisition Regulations
and other rules that contracting officers love to cite.


Some background for those new to federal IT acquisition: Back in the 1960s, IBM Corp.
dominated the computer market. (That's the company that makes big, expensive mainframe
computers that are hard to talk to and impossible to extract data.)


Many were afraid that IBM would corner the market on federal computers, because all the
government needed was one computer center on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. For
reasons historians will debate, the young congressman from Texas singled out the federal
computer market for special rules promoting competition, apparently aimed at limiting
IBM's share of the federal market.


Rep. Brooks was not an ideologue on competition. If you are an architect, you are
familiar with another Brooks Act that does the reverse of PL 89-306. That Brooks Act
prohibits the use of competitive procedures in much of the procurment process of architect
and engineering services. In a demonstration of remarkable political flexibility, Rep.
Brooks crafted legislation with just the opposite effect for federal IT buyers.


Now PL 89-306 is history. GSA's Information Technology Service is down to about 40
employees. Many ITS folks have gone to other parts of GSA. Most of the schedules staff has
moved over to GSA's Federal Supply Service, and many policy-writers now work in GSA's
Office of Acquisition Policy.


The handful that remain will provide staff support to the Office of Management and
Budget. It appears OMB is not increasing its staff to assume ITMRA responsibilities. This
fits OMB's style: Keep the numbers down so that critics can't complain that OMB has a
bloated bureaucracy.


GSA's small contingent will also provide staff support to committees created under
ITMRA. They have been doing this already for the Government IT Services Panel and other
governmentwide committees. These administrative tasks likely will be limited to minutes,
notices and room scheduling, a far cry from the days of governmentwide acquisition
authority that struck terror into the hearts of agency IT managers.


The GSA cadre for the time being will continue the agency's highly regarded training
programs, particularly the Trail Boss Program. However, this function may be swallowed by
the Federal Acquisition Institute or the GSA Training Center.


OMB officials would not be inclined to fend off efforts to peel away these training
programs; turning them over would reduce the GSA personnel and OMB responsibilities even
further.


Perhaps the CIO Council or GITS may want to hold onto the Trail Boss, 1,000 by 2,000
and other programs to ensure that agencies the latest post-IMTRA thinking.


However, these bodies will be quite busy getting themselves organized and may not focus
on training programs. Besides, many managers will figure that, thanks to IMTRA, there
won't be much to teach that is unique to information technology.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.//cpcug.org/user/houser/.
 



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