10 and counting

Anniversary appraisal: Renny Dipentima (left) and Paul Brubaker

Clinger-Cohen veterans mark a decade of progress, pitfalls

Although it looks a little like a prayer book, the small purple paperback that Glenn Schlarman keeps on his bedside table offers guidance of a more secular sort. It's a copy of the Clinger-Cohen Act, the landmark legislation that ushered in the era of the CIO and set the stage for performance-based management for government IT.

Schlarman, chief of the Office of Management and Budget's Information Policy and Technology Branch, said that, as much as the 10-year-old law has pushed government forward, there's still room for improvement.

'I'd like to see qualified project managers report to their boss every 90 days and say, 'How are we doing?' That way you don't wait a year to find out 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,' he said.

Schlarman, speaking at a recent event in Washington marking Clinger-Cohen's anniversary, wasn't alone in assessing the areas in which agencies have fallen short.

Turf wars

Many former and current federal officials said that agencies are still struggling with post-award management of contracts and projects, with too many large contracts not using performance-based methodology, and, of course, with turf issues.

But the fruits of Clinger-Cohen, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 as the Information Technology Management Reform Act, shouldn't be overlooked either, experts said. These include:
  • An increase in the authority of the federal CIO

  • Fewer billion-dollar runaway IT projects

  • Fewer bid protests

  • Government operating more like a business, less like a bureaucracy

  • Overall better management of federal IT assets.

'Clinger-Cohen helped government get better products faster and get them online,' said former Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.), who co-authored the act with former Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine).

'As any veteran of government will tell you, we had a real problem on our hands with efficiency of federal procurement before the act was passed,' Cohen said.

Now CEO of the Cohen Group of Washington, Cohen recalled one particularly glaring example.

'The IRS ordered computers for its field agents sometime around 1987, and they weren't delivered until 1992. Imagine: Roughly the same amount of time was necessary to win World War II as to buy new computers for federal employees.'

Despite the decade of progress, government still finds itself stumbling over some persistent obstacles in its pursuit of IT excellence.

The days when federal IT acquisition was synonymous with mountains of red tape are not entirely over. For example, Don Scott, senior vice president of EDS' U.S. Government Solutions division, still sees request-for-proposal documents that weigh 50 pounds.

Without exception, panelists at the ceremony agreed government still lacks the monitoring tools it needs to keep large IT projects from slipping through the cracks.

'We've got grandiose plans, but we don't have the internal basic business fundamentals,' said Paul Brubaker, chief marketing officer of SI International Inc. of Reston, Va., who served on Cohen's staff and helped him draft the bill.

'Long after programs are in deep, deep trouble, we find out,' he said. 'I want to do a better job of monitoring what I'm buying.'

Other panelists said that the absence of back-end life-support monitoring systems was the missing link 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,' said Dan Matthews, Transportation Department CIO and moderator of the panel discussion.

Focus on execution

'The focus now has to be on excellent execution,' said Renato DiPentima, president of SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., and former deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration.

Clinger-Cohen has also wrought some unintended consequences, Brubaker said.

'It's brought a proliferation of indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts. Sometimes companies find themselves chasing vehicles that give them an opportunity to compete. But I'd still rather spend money chasing a vehicle than spend money on a lawsuit,' he said.

Although the group agreed that the IT acquisition process is vastly better than it was before Clinger-Cohen, they also noted that bloated IT procurements are not extinct.

Brubaker, also a former Defense Department deputy CIO, referred obliquely to the Navy's $8.8 billion Navy-Marine Corps Intranet contract with EDS.

'We were given the impression that the award would be quick and that oversight mechanisms wouldn't get in the way,' he said.

But Brubaker said 'cultural issues' have complicated the execution of the contract.
'If people in agencies and industry would just read the legislation,' he said, waving the purple book. 'There's such goodness in the report language.'

For example, the 9/11 Commission 'kept talking about the trouble people had sharing information,' Brubaker said. 'Clinger-Cohen talked years earlier about the importance of information sharing. Not to toot our own horn, to say we were ahead of our time, but we were.'

Data sharing among agencies continues to be a problem. 'Three agencies'Social Security Administration, Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services'have their own disability assessment systems,' DiPentima said. 'There's no way those three systems will merge. People say, 'I like my data, and I trust it. But I'm not too sure about yours.''

Some of the benefits of Clinger-Cohen have been less tangible, at least from the perspective of industry.

'With Clinger-Cohen, we went from being just suppliers to partners,' said Keith Johnson, vice president with Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. Johnson has been selling IT to the government in some capacity since 1981. 'Back then, we supplied the widget, and the government bought it.'

Johnson compared the change since Clinger-Cohen to shipbuilding.

'The Navy has always had a real partnership with its shipbuilding contractors. Now, as part of a partnership, the IT industry can better understand the government's vision.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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