Standard act: Analyze your buy now, or pay later

Consider modular contracting. A few years ago it was called a fragmented procurement,
which the General Services Administration denounced. But under its new moniker, the Office
of Management and Budget is praising modular buying.


What a world of change the Information Technology Management Reform Act has wrought on
federal IT acquisition.


Once upon a time, contracting officers held on to orders for computer equipment until
program managers were ready to hire hit men and have them assassinated. The idea was that
agencies would save money by buying in large quantities and negotiating volume discounts.


Known as aggregating requirements, this buying method was more like manager
aggravation. Hardware for medical clinics and foot soldiers was lumped together into the
same buys.


The technical staffs for programs argued over requirements, specifications and
evaluation methods, consuming precious time and resources. Nothing convinced the
contracting officers that economy-of-scale buying didn't always work.


Anyone who has worked at a fast food restaurant during lunch hour knows that sales
volume doesn't beget lower prices. I do not suggest that you stand outside McDonald's
collecting orders into a single massive buy in the anticipation of lower prices. The
hungry public won't stand for it, but Uncle Sam has.


Contracting officers also did not appreciate the rapid obsolescence of computer
technology. Today's pencils and paper are just as good as yesterday's and tomorrow's. But
systems procurement delays often meant agencies bought equipment at the end of the product
cycle. Although the price of vintage gear was attractive, its inferior performance offset
any savings.


As PCs became commodities, agencies became increasingly frustrated with the buying
delays. To save time, they began to consolidate PC needs into requirements contracts. With
no maximum order limits, the indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts gave
program managers a la carte menus of hardware and software from which to build systems.


Contracting officers also liked IDIQ buys because they were the ultimate in
requirements aggregation. As client-server and LAN technologies came on the scene, IDIQ
buys became quite popular and the object of much vendor lust.


Gradually, agencies found the lengthy process of awarding an IDIQ contract once again
led to the procurement of obsolescent products. From analysis through specification,
evaluation and award, the IDIQ contract consumed vast technical talent and time.


And the stakes were so high that vendors prepared potential protests as they developed
proposals. Making an award often seemed to be half the battle as protests and suits
delayed the agency every step of the way.


But ITMRA changed all that. The administration eliminated the nickel-and-dime limits
for Commerce Business Daily notices and the maximum order limits. The value agencies found
in quickly selecting state-of-the-art technology pushed aside the often illusory benefits
of aggregating requirements. The average age of the federal computer equipment is dropping
as agencies use the General Services Administration's schedule contracts for buys
undreamed of even 10 years ago.


This change has made planning and IT architectures far more important. Back in the days
of the Brooks Act, agencies could get away with planning procurements instead of
applications. They could ignore architecture, adopting the winning vendor's architecture
for the life of each contract.


It made moving from one vendor to another a nasty job, but agencies were willing to do
anything to avoid the intra-agency communication and cooperation required by effective IT
planning and architectural design.


But thanks to the Clinger-Cohen Act, IT standards are now more critical than ever.
True, agencies have far more latitude. But with that freedom comes the responsibility of
making the tough commitment to agencywide standards-based architectures.


If agencies don't make this commitment, they risk losing the recently gained freedoms.
Agencies must avoid using today's easier buying methods to procure a hodgepodge of
incompatible products from schedule contracts.


Without tough standards policies and IT architecture plans, we will fail to integrate
and support our users' applications.


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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