Rep. Tom Davis: The exit interview

Election sound bites

FCW: You’re a careful watcher of elections, and we hear all the pollsters talk about this being a change election. What does that mean?

DAVIS: Voters recognize the dysfunction, and everybody is talking change. People do not want what is there now. If this were Bush’s third term, it would be a nonstarter, some of it for reasons outside of his control. The world is changing rapidly underneath us as it moves from the old Cold War to globalization and through changes in technology. It’s a wholesale shift, and it brings unease.

[Sen.] John McCain is a great hope for the Republicans because he is not an inside-the-box Republican. People know him to be independent. He is a war hero, and he can be an agent of change. On the other hand, the Democrats’ great strength is they are not the incumbent party in the White House. People want change. [Sen.] Barack Obama, in my opinion, is great at talking about change from 30,000 feet. But when he gets down on the ground, what is he going to do? Nobody has figured that out.

But who knows? I just say it is going to be a competitive election, and whoever comes in, hopefully they will make changes.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), whose interest in federal information technology and procurement policy issues has made him a standard-bearer in the federal IT community, will not return to Congress in 2009. Davis talked about the role of government and innovation, his personal plans and thoughts on the 2008 presidential election in an interview with Christopher J. Dorobek, editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, and Jason Miller, former FCW news editor.

FCW: What would you recommend to the incoming administration? Should there be a governmentwide chief information officer?
DAVIS: I’ve favored an independent CIO, but the Office of Management and Budget doesn’t want to give up that power. Whoever you pick in that area, you need a quality guy. John Koskinen did a lot of this [work] under President Clinton, and he was excellent. The first thing I’d say to the administration is make sure management is an important part of OMB. Consult with leaders of both parties. Get people who understand government and understand how it works. Clay Johnson is a great guy and has ideas, but he has not been in government before. You need somebody who can mold [government and the private sector] together, and that’s something that has been lacking.

Steve Kelman understood it pretty well on a procedural side and on the contracting side, and Al Gore understood that you needed to change the way government works. Democrats believe in government. A lot of our guys just don’t want government, and that makes it hard because they’re just trying to tear down government. Well, government is here to stay, and a lot of us can see the wonderful things government can do. You just want to do it right. If you’re going to have government, and it’s not going to get any smaller in terms of its directives, let’s make it work and make it efficient. [Republicans] spent very little time doing that and the result is [Hurricane] Katrina, [problems at] Walter Reed [Army Medical Center] and all those things.

FCW: People always say operate government like a business, but we all know that government isn’t a business. So how should government officials improve it so that it is more efficient?
DAVIS: The first thing you want in government is transparency. In business, you need to make decisions quickly, behind closed doors sometimes. That’s the last thing you want in government. So right away we build in inefficiencies in the name of transparency. We’re trying to bring more transparency to business in some ways with Sarbanes-Oxley and other legislation. The nature of [government and business] is different.

But having said that, we could use a little more nimbleness, less inflexibility in government and reward innovation instead of discouraging it.

I’m going to go back to share-in-savings contracts. The Project on Government Oversight doesn’t like them, and a lot of people don’t like them. But when I took over as head of county government in Fairfax County, Va., in 1992, we had no money. It was a terrible year. We didn’t have any money to invest in our IT to try to save money, so we went with share-in-savings contracts. 

Companies can say, look, we can save you $5 million on your tax collections. Let us do the job. If we don’t save you anything, you don’t pay us. But if we save you, that’s money that you have that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Is their markup bigger than the 3 percent or 4 percent fee that you might get otherwise? Absolutely. Of course, if they can’t deliver, they get nothing. 

FCW: What are some of your thoughts about leaving government?
DAVIS: I’ll just give you a couple of real frustrations. Telecommuting. Compa nies are using this. They’re all using telecommuting for exec utives and middle management. In our office, Melissa Wojciak, the former staff director for the House Government Reform Committee, when she had her kids, she could work from home. I didn’t want to lose her, so she’d telecommute from home for two or three months. Those were her terms, but she was very effective from there. And frankly, I had her on call 24 hours when she was doing that.

But in government, the mentality is if they don’t see you, you’re not doing your work. In some jobs, that’s true. It’s a culture shock, but one the government ought to be adjusting to, particularly at a time that everything is linked, where communications are instantaneous and ubiquitous. The resistance is incredible. That’s an easy one right off.

Secondly, hiring and firing people. You go to a job fair, and you’ve got a company bidding against the government. The company can sign you up right there. They can get a bonus to you within the week. [With] the government, six months after you’ve filled the application, you hear if you got the job or not. How can we be competitive for the best and brightest?

Now, part of it is leaders who inspire people to go into government. The one thing you’ve got to like about [Sen.] Barack Obama [(D-Ill.)] is that he’s inspiring a lot of young people. Maybe you get them to come into government. But I tell you what: He can inspire them to come into government, but once they fill out the forms, they wait six months and find out that they didn’t hit the right category, it’s going to discourage people. You want to bring good people in, and then you want to pay them. You want to bonus them. You want to inspire them to stay in government. Work satisfaction is an important part of that. If people feel they’re being productive, they’re going to stay in government.

So much of government today is [about] good, talented people that we’re not retaining. They’re filling out forms that never needed to be printed. They’re working under regulations that shouldn’t be. They’re sitting there on idle where we could make them more productive if we could step back as managers and say how do we get the job done? But we’re so regulation-driven instead of mission-driven that it’s very discouraging for talented people, and they go somewhere else.

I’ll just add one other thing. We’re part of the problem in Washington.  Politicians come in and when they’ve got to cut the budget, the first thing they do is chop off fingers and toes. They don’t look at their business processes in terms of how we can be more productive, how training people is a pretty good investment. And so, they cut out training. They take away their discretion to act by writing rules and regulations telling people what they have to do and how they have to do it. And who wants to work in a straitjacket? That just stops the innovative juices.

FCW: How has it been to work as the ranking member of the committee with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in the chairman’s role on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee?  
DAVIS: My relationship with Waxman is a good, professional relationship. It’s more than cordial. It’s one based on mutual respect, and one in which we try to work together and iron out our differences. This used to be one of the most partisan, divided committees in Congress. It’s actually worked pretty well compared to most committees, [even though] Henry and I have some serious disagreements on contracting, and we look at the world differently.

I represent a district that is full of government contractors, and my interest in that is going to be different from someone who represents Hollywood and Beverly Hills. He also, I think, gets pressure from his leader ship to try to highlight areas where government has gone wrong and b lame it on the administration. I understand that. We did a lot of that to [Bill] Clinton. But Waxman is also the guy who when you sit down and you get serious about issues — he’s a serious guy and he’s a smart guy — we can move each other sometimes to the point where we come out with some constructive [measures].  
His contracting bill [targeting no-bid contracts] is a much better bill now than when he originally introduced it. It’s not going anywhere in the Senate this year, I don’t think, but he did listen to us, and he made a number of appropriate changes in that bill. If it were to pass, it would at least be palatable. It wasn’t endorsed by the contracting community, but it would have been palatable.

I don’t have the same perspective he does on these issues, but I think his perspective and that of the Project on Government Oversight are important perspectives when you’re writing laws. They ought to be at the table and included in those conversations. What I get worried about is giving them the keys to the kingdom and letting them write contract law. At that point, we become too bureaucratized, and I think the taxpayers are the losers.

FCW:  If Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wins and asks you to join the administration in some form or fashion, is that something you would consider?
DAVIS: I just would say, you know, let me make a few bucks. (Davis laughs.) If I wanted to stay in government, I would stay in the House. By the way, the senator and I have had this conversation. I guess it just depends on what it is and what you want to do. But the reality is I would love to have some weekends with my wife and do some things we haven’t been able to do during our time in public service. And make sure I get my house paid off.

FCW: What job would be enticing?
DAVIS: I made more money the year before I was in Congress than I make now 14 years later, if that gives you an idea. All I am saying is a lot of people who have been successful in government take a couple of years out. I need a sabbatical. I want to continue to be involved in government, and I am going to continue to work with friends in both parties to try to make government work. On the other hand, if a president calls, you always listen.

FCW: But isn’t government work in your blood?
DAVIS:  Well, it is, but you know what? That is only until you see the other side.  We have taken a few weekends off now, and I will tell you, this isn’t bad. 

FCW: Looking back...
DAVIS: There are only three ways to leave public office and two of them aren’t very pleasant.

FCW: Death and...
DAVIS: Death and losing. 

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