The View From Inside

NPR hasn't helped feds as much as new technology

Walter R. Houser

Now that Vice President Gore is busy on the campaign trail, perhaps we can sneak a peek at the track record of his National Partnership for Reinventing Government proposals for federal information technology. Originally called the National Performance Review, the still-acronymed NPR was modeled after Texas' performance program.

It is ironic that Gore's principal opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, inherited the fruits of the earlier initiative.

Gore's IT team proposed a number of good ideas back in 1993. Unfortunately, the pressure of the coming election will push NPR toward glamorous reform initiatives rather than mundane infrastructure changes. Yet in the long run, the latter are more significant.

Fantastic five

Originally, the NPR IT team proposed five infrastructure improvements it called support mechanisms.

Implementing these support mechanisms was the responsibility of the Government IT Services Working Group, now the Government IT Services Board. Faced with a budget deficit and a mandate to trim government, the board was told to look for existing talent and funding to make these mechanisms succeed. This lack of funding has made implementation haphazard.

The first mechanism was to establish a Government Information Infrastructure. An integral part of the popular but ill-defined National Information Infrastructure, the GII would be the channel for interagency and intergovernmental sharing of applications and services. The replacement program for the FTS 2000 telecommunications contracts, FTS 2001, will likely become the vehicle for this mechanism, not another NPR recommendation, governmentwide e-mail.

Over the past seven years, however, the GITS Board and NPR have done little more than ride the wave of Internet technology that has spread throughout the government and society at large.

An e-mail project originally advocated the Open Systems Interconnection model, but most federal IT managers had the good sense to look at the price and go bargain hunting for TCP/IP instead.

The major exception was the Defense Department's Defense Message System. But even the deep-pocketed services at the Pentagon are having second thoughts about the cost of the OSI protocols and gateways.

The second support mechanism, development of systems and mechanisms to ensure privacy and security, was more like apple pie and motherhood. The board and NPR had little consensus on what this mechanism really meant.

This was shown by their anemic response to the privacy flap over the Social Security Administration making Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statements available online.

Despite the fact that you needed five personal identifiers before SSA's computers would expose your lifetime earning history on your computer screen, privacy advocates went ballistic. The newly elected Republican Congress could not resist denouncing the Clinton administration over it. Unsupported, SSA quickly shut down the operation.

Like every report on federal IT before it, the NPR IT report took a shot at the federal procurement process with the third support mechanism, to improve IT acquisition.

The team suggested the General Services Administration raise its delegation thresholds for IT procurements. But the IT Management Reform Act went even further by putting GSA out of the IT delegations business altogether.

The team said federal managers should have increased authority to make credit card purchases. Today, credit card purchases are the norm, with some cardholders having $1 million limits.

Beyond hopes

The report said agencies should use electronic bulletin boards to buy equipment and software. GSA Advantage and dozens of commercial Web sites have exceeded NPR's wildest imagination.

Finally, the team called for agencies to franchise their procurement shops, allowing competition and encouraging innovation in service. With the huge number of governmentwide acquisition contracts, the card-holding IT manager can shop around for the best vehicle and prices.

All told, the IT procurement situation has improved dramatically. The GITS Board and NPR contributed, but the major factor was repeal of the Brooks Act following the congressional loss the Democrats sustained in 1994.

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 www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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