A decade later, Clinger-Cohen Act still resonates

A group of government officials and industry representatives gathered today in Washington to toast the Clinger-Cohen Act, almost a decade old. A panel made up of current and former government officials discussed the role the landmark legislation played in the past, present and future of government IT.

Former Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.), co-author of the act, called the legislation 'a real labor of love.' The drafters of the bill 'sat in a room with no windows, with tons of junk food, writing this bill,' he said. 'But the stars were in alignment, one of the few times in Congress.'

Written at a time when the country had a Democratic president and a Republican Congress, Clinger-Cohen transcended politics, he said.

'Kicking and screaming, we managed to bring procurement policy out of the 19th century into the 20th century,' Clinger said. 'Now we're hoping to move it into the 21st century.'

Renato DiPentima, president of SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., and former deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration, said one of the triggers for Clinger-Cohen was a 1992 mandate from the Clinton administration to reduce the workforce of the executive branch by 272,500 people. CIOs realized that the workload wasn't going to be reduced, so technology would have to substitute for people.

Back then, 'We were used to acquisitions that took two years, three protests and wasn't what you wanted anyhow,' DiPentima said.

Officials at the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office agreed that the IT acquisition process then was something left over from the Industrial Age, according to Paul Brubaker, chief marketing officer of SI International Inc. of Reston, Va. Brubaker served on William Cohen's staff and helped the former Maine senator draft the bill.

The consensus was that government was getting further and further behind. 'So many people were thinking exactly the same way, something you don't typically see in this town,' Brubaker said.

Clinger-Cohen gave agencies the tools to control their own destinies, said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International LLC of Washington, and chief of information and technology policy at OMB from 1985 to 1999. OMB felt some resistance to letting agencies do this on their own, but agencies understood their missions better than OMB, he said.

Amid all the good cheer and birthday wishes, the panelists agreed that the struggle to attain the goals of Clinger-Cohen is far from over.

Melissa Wojciak, staff director of the House Committee on Government Reform, said some agencies say, ' 'I know the mandate is supposed to be governmentwide, but we're really special and should be an exception.' That happens too often.'

Glenn Schlarmann, chief of OMB's Information Policy and Technology Branch, said he would like to see better project accountability. 'I'd like to see a qualified project manager report to the boss every 90 days and say 'How are we doing?' That way you don't wait a year to find our about the project's failure or read about it in the paper. Do due diligence on yourself'don't demand that somebody come looking for you.'

Dan Matthews, the Transportation Department CIO, cautioned the group about what he called the 'back end of Clinger-Cohen: Somebody has to have the moxie where they can back out if they are $30 million into a project and it's not going well.'

Brubaker noted that at times the objective of large companies is at odds with the goals of Clinger-Cohen. 'They want to communicate to their shareholders certain big profit numbers,' he said. 'Large industry won't be supportive of moving away from billion-dollar programs.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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