GCN Hall of Fame: Cohen changed the course of federal IT

'As I recall, the IRS had ordered laptops for its field agents in something like 1987, and they were delivered in 1992. I thought there had to be something wrong with that system.'

'William Cohen

Try to imagine today's federal IT without the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

'Without it,' said Anthony Valletta, a former assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications and intelligence, 'we'd probably be what we were: a bunch of little islands of big and little agencies each doing what they thought was right in IT but with no thought of an enterprise architecture, hit-or-miss interoperability, no performance metrics, no one in charge and a lot of wasted time, money and effort.'

Based on a 1994 report, Computer Chaos: Billions Wasted Buying Federal Computer Systems by then-Maine Senator William Cohen, Clinger-Cohen changed the way the federal government selects and buys IT. The act defined the position of agency CIO and reached into the farthest corners of federal IT to become the cornerstone of digital government.

But in the early 1990s, Cohen said, he was merely trying to streamline what he saw as 'a chaotic procurement process.' One incident in particular provoked his interest.

'As I recall, the IRS had ordered laptops for its field agents in something like 1987, and they were delivered in 1992,' he said. 'I thought there had to be something wrong with that system.'
Together with co-sponsor Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.), Cohen submitted to Congress the IT Management Reform Act, now commonly called Clinger-Cohen.

It abolished the Brooks Act, which gave central authority for IT procurement to the General Services Administration. 'It was important to put authority for IT procurement in the hands of the agencies and to require that heads of agencies link IT investments to results,' Cohen said.
Far from issuing a carte blanche, the bill demanded that agencies make a solid business case for each IT acquisition.

'It also introduced something that had been missing, and that was performance metrics,' Valletta said.

The bill went further, making government IRM directors into CIOs reporting directly to agency heads.

Clinger-Cohen 'ensured there was one person in charge, one belly button to push,' said Valletta, now a senior vice president at SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va. 'Before, there could be 15 or 20 individuals involved in planning and building IT architecture.'

Stars are born

'We agreed that the CIO needed to be at the head table,' said Valletta, one of Cohen's small group of IT advisers on the legislation. The group roster reads like a Who's Who of federal IT, including such future luminaries as Treasury CIO and Homeland Security adviser James Flyzik, e-government administrator Mark Forman and year 2000 czar John Koskinen.

Also on board were Cohen aide and future Defense CIO Paul Brubaker, Office of Management and Budget chief of information and technology policy Bruce McConnell, assistant secretary of Defense Lt. Gen. Emmett Paige Jr., then-deputy Defense secretary John Hamre and Cohen's predecessor as Defense secretary, William Perry.

'As we were making changes and recommendations, little did we know that a year or two later, the majority of us would be CIOs,' Valletta said.

Few politicians at the time saw the future of IT as clearly as Cohen did.

'I was seeing technology revolutionize world affairs, and I knew we'd have to link our systems together to take advantage of new technology and be able to process information at ever-faster rates,' Cohen said.

That realization made interoperability a crucial requirement of the bill, he said. 'I had been hectoring our NATO allies about interoperability, that we were 16 countries operating to defend our collective interests, yet we couldn't effectively exchange information, because of a mismatch in our systems.'

The bill passed and, in an odd turn of events, the senator who crafted the law later found himself, as secretary of Defense starting in 1997, having to live up to it.

'Yes, it was odd. I thought I was going to float away from the Senate on my achievement,' he said, laughing.

'Actually, it was a great opportunity to work from within. And not wanting to be hoist on my own petard, we established best practices, electronic shopping, paperless procurement and a great number of other IT innovations.

'I think President Bush is still building on that base,' Cohen said.

'On his watch, a lot of precepts he put into the law got put into effect,' said Belkis Leong-Hong, who left as deputy assistant secretary of Defense in 1999 to become president of Knowledge Management Inc. of Bethesda, Md.

'He lived up to his words,' Valletta agreed. 'Every Wednesday night, [as CIO] I was sitting at the table with Secretary Cohen and John Hamre. We got to voice our concerns and talk about what we thought our IT architecture should be.'

'He was a consensus builder,' Leong-Hong said.

As chairman and chief executive officer of the Cohen Group in Washington, Cohen continues his campaign for responsible IT.

Public-private partnerships are more important than ever, he said. 'Government needs a better bridge to the private sector'that's where the innovation in IT is coming from.'

Within the world of federal IT, his legacy continues. Agencies' concerns with IT portfolio management are derived from Clinger-Cohen's requirement to manage IT assets as an investment.

Sami Lais is a free-lance writer in Tacoma Park, Md.


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