IT funding hurdles result in stale federal systems
Male, pale and stale. That's the epithet some wags apply to the federal information
technology work force. Actually, this group is probably equal to others when it comes to
racial and gender diversity, and maybe better.
But the word stale is a particularly sharp barb. We are expected to bring modern IT to
our agencies. A failure to keep up with IT can cripple agency effectiveness.
What is stale? Stale is buying client-server technology instead of World Wide Web
technology. Stale is writing code line-by-line instead of using development tools. Stale
is using outdated software because it's familiar.
It may be hard to believe, but during the mid-1960s, federal IT was state-of-the-art.
Before passage of the Brooks Act, agencies bought the latest and greatest as it rolled off
the production lines of IBM Corp. In the interest of competition, former Rep. Jack Brooks
pushed through legislation to control IT buys.
The resulting compendium of rules, known as the Federal Information Resources
Management Regulation, made IT acquisitions quite complicated.
Repeal of the Brooks Act has simplified IT acquisitions. The past decade of fiscal
conservatism, however, has made it difficult to fund major IT projects. Once you get
agency and Office of Management and Budget approval, the difficulty of recruiting
employees and the shortage of training funds hamper IT initiatives.
One easy solution is to hire contractors, which are free of federal personnel and
procurement rules. They can pay market rates and hire promptly. Vendors can swell and
shrink the size of their work force overnight to accommodate the ebb and flow of business.
Private-sector IT employees change jobs the way feds change clothes. Contractors are not
constrained by rigid funding. Unlike feds, they can move money among training, hardware
and staff accounts as necessary.
Contractor flexibility has made privatization the hot trend of the late 1990s.
Companies run prisons, issue food stamps, collect highway tolls and manage public schools.
If you want a freshly minted computer scientist, your best bet is to get a contractor to
hire one for you. Personnel freezes, buyouts and deteriorating federal benefits make it
hard to recruit highly qualified new blood.
The Clinton administration is proud of reducing federal employment to its lowest level
in 30 years. Federal business is following the workers out the door.
But there are some serious implications for replacing employees with contractors.
Software applications are the embodiment of policy. Rules written into the code become
the de facto policy for how an agency deals with the public and manages itself. The
software edit rules are what truly shape behavior, whether it is to identify suspicious
tax returns or deliver medical claims for the Veterans Affairs Department.
Regulations may still be written by full-time feds, but increasingly, the code is being
written by contractors. Untold numbers of policies are being etched in software by
contractors, not federal employees, as required by law and OMB Circular A-76.
But contractors are supposed to produce specific deliverables according to government
specifications. More and more agencies are hiring talent rather than buying products and
services. When agency managers supervise the activities of contractors, give them
assignments, direct their performance and do all the other duties of a supervisor, we have
changed from customers to personnel service providers.
Either the law must change or agencies must curtail their contracting activities. As we
come to rely on contractors for routine functioning of programs, the prohibition may
become a dead issue.
Contracting out carries a substantial price. Unless an agency adopts a devil-may-care
attitude, most of its technical talent will be tied up managing contracts, not technology.
Yet the most talented IT professionals intensely dislike the paperwork associated with
contract management and will flee or retire to avoid it.
Their technical skills will atrophy as they spend all their time writing requirements,
specifications, evaluation criteria, contract modifications and the constant minutia of
When it comes to technical ability, you use it or lose it.
The government is working on pale and male. But stale is the most difficult of the
three challenges facing federal IT.
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.