Another View | Networx: Overcoming the risks

The transition from the FTS 2001 contract to Networx is the largest, highest-risk change-over in information technology contracts ever undertaken by federal agencies.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the last transition, from FTS 2000 to FTS 2001, took more than 24 months and cost the government an estimated $74 million in lost savings because of delays.

This time, the transition will be much more challenging.

First, the government will be transitioning services that are more complex than ever before. At the beginning of the FTS 2001 contract, a decade ago, more than 80 percent of the transitions, by service revenue, were accounted for by relatively simple services ' switched voice and private lines. This time, almost half of the services to be transitioned, including IP networks, managed network services and Web hosting, will present more technical and management risks. The Networx program offers a much wider array of services than FTS 2001, including a new set of Trusted Internet Connection services.

Second, there are fewer skilled professionals in industry and government to accomplish the transition. Since 1998, the telecommunications industry has gone through successive waves of massive layoffs. Likewise, the federal government has seen dramatic reductions in employees dedicated to managing and operating agency networks. With the aging of the federal workforce, few trained agency employees still in the government have experience with handling a massive network infrastructure transition.

Third, day-to-day government operations depend much more heavily on federal network infrastructure than they did a decade ago. E-government has grown from a dream to a reality, which means that the public, federal employees, state and local agencies, and economic institutions depend more than ever on uninterrupted connectivity to the federal government's network infrastructure.

With 135 agencies and more than 1,600 sub-bureaus located in more than 1,600 facilities in 191 countries begin the transition from FTS 2001 to Networx, we are more vulnerable than ever to transition problems, such as service disruptions, unscheduled delays, security breaches and unanticipated costs.

The horror stories from the last transition to FTS 2001 still haunt the halls of government: the agency transition that took two years; the local exchange carrier that had to build extra last-mile capacity in the middle of a cutover; the vendor installation teams that couldn't get into a government building because they didn't know whom to contact; inventories that were out of date; and old services that were never disconnected, so the associated bills continued to be paid.

Transition is an inherently risky business. Still, the government is doing a lot of the right things to minimize transition pitfalls, according to a just-published Government Accountability Office audit.

We focus so much attention on what the government does wrong on IT projects that it's worth asking the question, 'What are we doing right this time, when the program is so large (the government spent $960 million on FTS 2001 services in fiscal 2007) and the risks are so great?'

We need to give the General Services Administration some credit. It made an enormous investment in making Networx succeed, and it's paying off. GSA hired good people to run the program, invested in a thorough analysis of agency requirements and built a set of precise service descriptions and service-level agreements.

The agencies also deserve credit. They have been participating regularly on the Interagency Management Council and its Transition Working Group. They committed resources to the process, appointing transition managers and teams to apply guidelines and lessons learned.

GAO and congressional overseers also deserve credit for playing a constructive role in guiding policy in a relatively obscure technical realm.

Moving from one contract to another is always difficult. This time, at least, many individuals worked together pretty effectively to minimize risks. If we could deal with our other challenges in a similar fashion, we would gain better results, more political support and larger budgets for other big IT initiatives.

Suss (warren.suss@sussconsulting.com) is president of Suss Consulting.

About the Author

Warren Suss is president of Suss Consulting, a federal IT consulting firm headquartered in Jenkintown, Pa.

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