So who's minding the store?

At least that's what participants said during the annual Government Information
Technology Acquisition Conference held recently in Falls Church, Va.


Amid widespread concern that a faulty buy could turn back the clock on procurement
reforms, information technology contracting officers asked the Office of Management and
Budget to step up supervision. But OMB officials demurred, saying that oversight belongs
to agency CIOs.


"I'm sensing a nostalgia for the Brooks Act days," said Peter N. Weiss, a
senior policy analyst and attorney for OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs,
referring to the law controlling IT buys from 1965 to 1996.


Conference participants quickly rejected that notion, however. Most agreed that the
quick pace of change has stressed, but not broken, the procurement process.


Many of the contracts being awarded won't hold up to scrutiny, several procurement
officials said during the final session of the conference. Too many buying decisions are
based not on best value, price or past performance, but instead on an agency's familiarity
with a vendor, procurement officers acknowledged.


Navy Cmdr. David Reidy, deputy program manager for the Tactical Advanced Computer
project office and the person widely credited with negotiating the TAC contracts,
suggested that OMB would find problems if it were to audit agency books. OMB needs to do
oversight, he said.


"I don't think OMB has stepped up the oversight role other than [in] the
budget," a participant said.


And although the Chief Information Officer Council and the Government Information
Technology Services Board are looking at the issue, both groups lack authority.


The changes in IT procurement have been a huge step forward, the participant said, but
it still needs leadership.


And agencies are looking for it from OMB, he said.


"OMB is supposed to be managing this all, anyway," said Robert J. Woods, the
former commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service,
who recently left the government to join Federal Sources Inc. "The idea that
everybody's a [computer] expert because their cousin has a PC is ridiculous."


Weiss countered that oversight is the task of agency chief information officers, which
agencies are required to have under the same legislation that killed the Brooks Act.


"That's his job description," Weiss said of CIOs.


The fundamental failure of the Brooks Act was that cabinet secretaries weren't
responsible for their own IT projects, Weiss said.


"We had a core of information resource managers who were disconnected from the
real management," he said. "The fundamental paradigm shift of Information
Technology Management Reform Act was to say, 'Secretary, IT is yours just like everything
else.' "


There needs to be some perspective on the ITMRA, Weiss said, which has only been in
place for 16 months. "Agencies have done more in the first year with ITMRA that they
did in the first three years under the [chief financial officer] act," he said.


Woods compared the post-Brooks Act period to Naval shore-leave time. "A few days
from now, we're going to get smarter about how to buy and be careful not to take that to
silly limits," he said.


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