THE VIEW FROM INSIDE

If only feds could dispose of old computers easily

Walter R. Houser

In a recent speech, Vice President Gore called for development of an online government auction site he dubbed G-Bay.

Press reports described the site as a way agencies could sell excess equipment and raise money. I'm glad this long-ignored subject has finally gotten attention from top management.

When they were part of the Federal Information Management Resources Regulation, the rules governing excess, surplus and exchange-sale data processing equipment were arcane and dysfunctional. In January 1988, my first column for GCN was on this topic.

The situation hasn't improved much.

I had hoped that the Information Technology Management Reform Act would encourage the General Services Administration to simplify or abolish the labyrinthine rules for getting rid of old equipment. I should have known better.

The rules on disposal of excess IT were published in the Federal Register on Aug. 8, 1996. According to a letter sent to all federal agencies the same week, copies of these rules were available on the GSA IT Policy Home Page, at www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/home1.htm. I was unable to locate this page or FIRMR Subpart 101-43.6, 'Disposition of IT Excess Personal Property,' after several hours of rummaging through GSA's Web site.

But I did find www.fss.gsa.gov/property with much useful information. Unfortunately, links to the regulations were broken.

So, apparently, the property disposal problems are unchanged. The proceeds typically go to the Treasury; agency managers have little incentive to search for an economically or socially advantageous home for their castoffs. The nice folks at the Treasury Department are not likely to pin a gold star on your lapel, much less put funds in your program account.

No time

The satisfaction of doing the right thing is usually more than offset by the urgent need to move quickly to the next task at hand. The boss may not appreciate the time and effort required to find a suitable home for the unwanted equipment. Most managers scramble to get the new stuff running.

Old computers are often stripped of useful innards and stacked in closets, empty offices or basement hallways until someone gets the time to fill in the paperwork to dispose of them. Licenses, documentation and software disks are usually long lost.

The cost and effort of salvaging such time-ravaged equipment has led many would-be beneficiaries of government excess hardware to say, 'No thanks.'

There is an established order for advertising excess and surplus equipment. The owning agency must first notify its own components, using an SF-120 form, 'Report of Excess Personal Property.' The paperwork is also sent to GSA, which offers the equipment to other agencies.

GSA's Personal Property Division disposes of nearly anything from desks to mobile homes. The division keeps a mailing list for notifying the public of these sales. Its phone numbers are 800-495-1276 and 214-978-2352.

Next to be notified are state and local governments, eligible public institutions and nonprofit organizations. Surplus federal property is first offered to them for public purposes such as health, education or parks. If none of these entities are interested, the property can be sold to private individuals and companies by competitive bid.

I doubt that Gore's speechwriters were aware of this administrivia when they coined the G-Bay idea. Probably one of them cruised eBay.com, the popular electronic auction site, and thought, 'This is a no-brainer.'

That would be true if the government followed the eBay model. But federal agencies would still be bound by rules. Online auction houses would smell trouble. Coding federal rules would drive programmers crazy. The rules and social priorities would bleed G-Bay of most of its value to the auctioneers.

Few electoral votes ride on this campaign promise. But the Gore speechmakers would be wise to consult with their colleagues at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, where they'd find real experience in circumventing red tape.

The idea of G-Bay is a good one. But the Gore team needs to make sure that this little promise doesn't come back to haunt them.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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