GSA: Contract out IT work if it makes sense

Whether government employees like it or not, federal agencies are turning increasingly
to vendors to manage their information systems.


A new report from the General Services Administration's Information Technology
Management Practices Division concluded that for many projects, outsourcing is a good
idea. By relying on contractors, the report said, agencies can focus on the regulatory
tasks for which they were created.


GSA found that agency managers, under pressure from Congress and the administration to
show better results in day-to-day operations, are using vendors to improve day-to-day IT
operations.


Many agencies are handing over IT functions that they labeled as mission-critical just
a few years ago, including running WANs and LANs, developing applications, maintaining and
supporting systems, and training users.


"Outsourcing represents one way for federal IT managers to perform the seemingly
impossible task of improving services in the face of declining funding and staffing,"
the report said. "Successful outsourcing enables organizations to focus on what they
do best--accomplish their mission."


The report, Outsourcing Information Technology, makes no recommendations but
concluded that when appropriate, agencies ought to let vendors run systems, said Martin
Kwapinsky, co-manager of GSA's Best Practices Program and project manager for the report.


The decision, however, ultimately must be made by an agency's managers based on sound
business justifications, he said.


The report warns: "It is a management tool and should be approached in that
manner."


Managers, for instance, shouldn't use outsourcing to avoid running projects themselves
if that is what's required. Managers still need staff to determine policy and provide
project oversight, GSA concluded.


"It must be remembered that privatization is only a management tool, not a
substitute for good management," the report said.


An important part of any privatization effort is maintaining the staff to oversee
projects, said Theresa Noll, a project manager for GSA's IT Management Practices Division.


Federal managers, concerned about systems security, want to maintain control of systems
and often resist outsourcing, GSA found. Agency executives also face the danger that the
relationship between the agency and a contractor will sour, and perhaps hamper or foul a
project, the report said.


But there are legal and contractual ways to avoid problems, Kwapinski said.


Managers are not the only skeptics when it comes to outsourcing. Union representatives,
lawmakers and other community leaders, and sometimes even contractors will fight an agency
that seeks to outsource a project, GSA found.


Keeping all parties informed about the agency's goals and a project's status often
reduces such resistance, the report said.


GSA also offered several tips about how to write a performance work statement for a
contract. The PWS details the task, performance standards and deadline for the project.


"The PWS should be performance-oriented, specifying what outputs or measures are
desired and limiting directions as to how the results are achieved," GSA said.


Another bit of advice in the report: Parcel projects out in smaller, more manageable
pieces.


"If you outsource, you need to understand that you're not just giving up a project
and saying that you're not concerned about it anymore," Kwapinski said.


GSA has posted the report on the World Wide Web at http://www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/mkm/gsaepp/finalout.htm.


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