Donating fed computers to schools is no easy task

Many federal agencies have been generously donating old computers to schools and other
charities. Unfortunately, problems abound with this well-intended effort to get the
nation's schools on the Information Superhighway.


Executive Order 12999, signed by President Clinton on April 17, calls for the transfer
of excess federal computer equipment to schools and nonprofit organizations. The order
describes its intent: to "streamline the transfer of excess and surplus federal
computer equipment to our Nation's classrooms and encourage federal employees to volunteer
their time and expertise to assist teachers and connect classrooms."


Since April, some agencies have gotten bogged down legally and procedurally. They have
done little to change how they dispose of their equipment. Others have been giving PCs
away and, with them, headaches and expense. A few have been successful thanks to the
efforts of dedicated, trained professionals who donate time with their agency's excess
hardware and software.


To make donations more efficient, the presidential order requires agencies to
"report such equipment as far as possible in advance of the date the equipment
becomes excess, so that GSA [the General Services Administration] may attempt to arrange
direct transfers from the donating agency to recipients eligible under this order."


GSA has a role in setting up these transfers, but neither the agencies nor GSA seem
familiar with it. This order is not the only change facing GSA. Compared to the
Information Technology Management Reform Act, EO 12999 is small potatoes. So don't expect
much in the way of promotional literature or clarification from GSA very soon.


Federal agencies are not the only organizations that have gotten snarled in policy
deliberations. Microsoft's software donation program has remained a promise as the
company's legal and business units debate implementation. Consequently, this
much-anticipated assault into Apple's educational stronghold has yet to materialize.


Even after bureaucratic logjams are broken, problems still occur. Many agencies have
donated PCs that need work, and the schools have scarce resources to begin with. Short on
technicians, schools and charities have had to scramble to restore stripped-down PCs.
Concerned that parts will be in short supply, many agencies have scavenged anything useful
off their excess PCs.


Not only do these changes make these computers less effective, in many instances they
don't run. For instance, many older machines have BIOS chips that require configuration
disks. The removal of memory chips or LAN cards changes the configuration. Without the
configuration disk, the PC will not boot up.


Moreover, missing parts can be crucial to the recipient. Replacing them can be costly
in labor and dollars.


Thoughtful donating agencies only hold back essential parts. When they do this,
replacement parts are installed and the new configuration is tested. Donor agencies should
provide configuration disks, system and application software, and documentation, instead
of tossing manuals into the trash. Recipients can use these items to make unfamiliar
software work or as proof of ownership to get upgrades at reduced prices.


Donations can be a great boon for the recipient. Your agency can consult an experienced
charity for advice on how to recycle excess PCs successfully. For example, the Capital PC
User Group rebuilds donated computers and gives them to schools in the Washington area.
The CPCUG Computers for Schools Program is led by Ann Dorsey and Matt McIntire. Call
301-762-9372 to donate your agency's castoffs or to join this dedicated crew of
volunteers.


Other programs include the Lazarus Foundation (tel. 410-740-0735 or http://www.lazarus.org/), the U.S. Tech Corps (http://www.cgcs.org/TC-DC/), the National
Computer Recycling/Mentoring Association, Non-Profit Computing (tel. 212-759-2368),
Americans Communicating Electronically (tel. 301-277-5085 or http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov/ace/),
and the Learning and Information Networks for Community Telecomputing (tel. 516-728-9100).


Or call Tom Hefferman of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups at
214-233-9107 to find a computer user group nearby.


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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