Is less enough?

The situation between the Social Security Administration and Unisys Corp. has been
called a classic agency-contractor confrontation.


Well, not exactly. SSA is merely sticking to the terms of its Intelligent
Workstation/LAN contract,


which calls for 100-MHz Pentium PCs--tens of thousands of them--to be installed on LANs
at SSA offices throughout the United States.


So far, Unisys and its subcontractors have been able to keep delivering machines
containing 100-MHz Pentium chips, which Intel Corp. is no longer manufacturing.


We tend automatically to think agencies want the latest technology, because a given
number of dollars today buys so much more than it did yesterday. In some cases, agencies
do want state-of-the-art gear.


Federal marketing chiefs from the major PC vendors now say that feds are among the
earliest buyers of machines with the latest chips. Indeed, there are agencies and missions
that have a continuous need for faster processing.


But in this case, the sticking point is dollars and supplies, not technology. SSA
contends that Unisys' offer for machines with newer processors would cost an additional
$27 million over the contract's original value of $280 million.


SSA isn't an agency that needs ever more power, at least not for the applications it is
fielding on PCs bought through IWS/LAN. The applications run just fine on 100-MHz
machines, agency officials said.


Moreover, SSA is particular in its contract administration. Vendors with SSA experience
will tell you that when the agency settles on dollars, it simply doesn't go back to
Congress for more. What a novel approach.


That's why a joint hearing of the House Ways and Means subcommittees on Human Resources
and Social Security was so goofy. Here you had the SSA commissioner lecturing Congress on
not wasting taxpayers' dollars. Makes you wonder what sparked the hearing in the first
place.


No doubt SSA and Unisys will work something out. But IWS/LAN is a reminder of some
eternal truths.


First, in contracts involving PCs, neither side can ignore the issue of discontinued
chips. Second, it's important to distinguish between supply problems and technological
ones. Third, it is possible for agencies to spend exactly what they promised they would.


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