Computers rule

The transformation of the federal workforce in the past 20 years has followed the ascendancy of the computer from a clerical device to a sophisticated tool used in every aspect of government operations

In 1987, when Federal Computer Week began covering federal workforce issues, desktop computers were still a novelty in some parts of the federal government.

Many managers considered them to be clerical devices. Real computers were operated in rooms with raised floors, and e-mail was nearly unheard of outside ARPAnet, a Defense Department network that predated the Internet.

In the 20 years since then, information technology went from being a support tool at most agencies to being a primary tool  for conducting government business.

The demands on the federal IT and acquisition workforces changed, too. As government reinvented itself and legislation such as the Clinger-Cohen Act put new demands on the government’s use of IT, federal managers had to contend with massive changes in the global IT labor market that made it harder to attract and retain the very people on whom the success of new technology projects depended.

The shift in attitudes began in the late 1980s, particularly at DOD as the landmark Small Computer Requirements Contracts, known as Desktop II and Desktop III, put general-purpose PCs on the desks of many military and civilian employees for the first time. But other agencies didn’t fully experience technology-driven changes until Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, two months after President Clinton’s first inauguration.

GPRA mandated that agencies develop long-term strategic plans and annual performance reports. A strategic plan required an explanation of how goals and objectives were to be achieved, “including a description of the operational processes, skills and technology, and the human, capital, information and other resources required to meet those goals and objectives,” according to the act. If other forces had not already elevated IT to a senior management issue at agencies, GPRA did.

cartoon Legislation wasn’t the only force driving changes in senior agency management in 1993. Soon after his inauguration, Clinton initiated the National Performance Review (NPR), placing Vice President Al Gore in charge of analyzing government operations and examining every agency and spending program.
The goal, Clinton said in announcing the review, was “to make the entire federal government less expensive and more efficient and to change the culture of our national bureaucracy away from complacency and entitlement toward initiative and empowerment.”

NPR evolved into the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPRG), an initiative that fundamentally changed the government’s relationship to IT, including how agencies bought technology and related services. Technology was a major focus of the initiative, and that came as a surprise to many federal
executives.

“Early on in 1993, the [NPR] team reached out to me and other executives,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy at the Partnership for Public Service. At the time, he was deputy director of policy and evaluation at the Merit Systems Protection Board. “When we met with the reinvention team, as we were wrapping up, they [asked for] our e-mail addresses. Al Gore was a big believer in communication through technology. But a lot of [executives] did not have e-mail addresses at the time. A lot of people didn’t even have computers on their desks.”
“During the next seven years, that changed dramatically,” Palguta added. “Now, there’s an increasingly heavy reliance on IT just for communication. Consequently, you can’t afford to have the tech not work.”

cartoon Although NPR’s efforts and, later, those of NPRG placed new emphasis on the use of technology to make government work better, another piece of legislation soon followed in 1996 that more dramatically changed how the government bought and used technology and the skills federal IT and procurement workers needed to handle those changes.

The IT Management Reform Act of 1996, better known as the Clinger-Cohen Act, aimed to make agencies run their IT operations more like for-profit businesses did. As part of that effort, it codified the responsibilities of federal chief information officers into law and required justification for all IT purchases based on a comprehensive plan that matched business operations to a technology infrastructure — an enterprise architecture.

“The Clinger-Cohen Act created a structure for IT, but it also said that technology has to be part of agency management,” said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council. In the 1990s, he was deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition reform and director of then-Defense Secretary William Cohen’s Defense Reform Initiative. The Clinger-Cohen Act “began to address some of the problems that the government had accessing new technology,” Soloway said.

At the same time, efforts to reinvent government dramatically changed the size of the federal workforce. Within days of the publication of the first NPR report in 1994, Clinton announced that he would be implementing a recommendation to cut 252,000 jobs from the federal payroll.

By the end of the Clinton administration, NPRG took credit for reducing the government workforce by 426,200 from its size in January 1993. Soloway said most reductions occurred at DOD because of the end of the Cold War rather than the NPR initiative.

“The perception that there was a 35 percent cut in the workforce was incorrect,” Soloway said. “All of the workforce cuts in the 1990s really came from the DOD.”

Economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics placed the federal government at the top of its list of job-losing employment sectors in 2000, measuring the job loss at 16 percent of the workforce from 1989 to 1999. At the same time, partly because of the Internet boom of the 1990s, jobs in the service industry grew by more than 12 million — a 45 percent increase.

cartoon Soloway said the Internet boom and the private-sector job creation it spawned were part of a long-term trend that began emerging in the 1970s — the end of the government’s reign as the leader in IT spending.

“If you look at the history of IT investment in the last quarter of the 20th century, the private sector led investment in technology,” Soloway said. “It was no longer tied to government programs.”

By 1997, he added, the private sector outspent the government on technology research and development by a ratio of 5 to 1.

“Government didn’t own the technology anymore, and that had a huge influence on the workforce,” Soloway said. “New graduates were going to where the tech was. The government found itself by the mid-1990s competing for people in a global marketplace in a way that it didn’t have to before. In 1998, there were 75 IT companies spending more on R&D” than DOD was.

Soloway recalled a conversation with a Pacific Fleet flag officer in the mid-1990s. “He told me that the captains [of the fleet’s shops] hated to bring their ships into port because the headhunters were waiting practically on the docks.”
 
Job expansion
Although the collapse of the dot-com bubble reduced some of the competition for IT talent, technology jobs remained the most competitive positions to fill nationwide. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that eight of the 10 fastest-growing professions in the current decade are computer related. The number of computer software engineers and support specialists is expected to increase by nearly 100 percent.

In the late 1990s, federal executives faced the problem of having a workforce that lacked the technological skills necessary to meet the demands of the Clinger-Cohen Act. The result was an increasing reliance on contractors.

“The government in the 1990s had to face that it had a problem with keeping its workforce up-to-date,” Soloway said.

He cites the example of the Army’s effort to overhaul its wholesale logistics system in 1997 and 1998. One of the service’s requirements for the new operation was that it comply with Level 3 of the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model.

Unfortunately, the existing system was written in Cobol, and the cost in tools and training to transition a workforce to CMM Level 3 was phenomenal, Soloway said.
“The only way to do it was outsourcing,” he said.

The government’s reliance on outsourcing increased further after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Greater complexity
Outsourcing didn’t eliminate the need for federal IT employees. Instead, it placed even more complex demands on them.

“An increase in the size of the contractor workforce means that you need for government IT people to be pretty good at working with and managing contractors,” Palguta said. “It becomes a core-competency requirement. To be a wise buyer, you have to be fairly sophisticated in terms of technical skills and knowledge. If you don’t have the people to manage the relationship with contractors properly, you’re in bad shape.”

Civilian agencies were hit the hardest. “Acquisition hasn’t been supported outside the DOD,” Soloway said. “If you look across the civilian agencies, they’ve only recently recognized program management as a skill.”

Palguta said the Coast Guard’s Deepwater project is an example of what can happen when contractors are given too much autonomy. “They gave the contractors the whole process,” he said.

Soloway said he agreed with Palguta’s assessment of the risks involved. When employees don’t have a grasp of best practices and solid technical skills, many projects quickly run into trouble, especially when requirements are unclear, Soloway said.

“Failures are either performance or visibility issues,” he said. “With the [Navy Marine Corps Intranet], the Navy could only estimate the number of networks they had.”

While management responsibilities grew in complexity, government business experienced a vast increase in volume without a commensurate staff increase.
The acquisition workforce has not grown from its current size of about 106,000 acquisition employees since 2000, Palguta said. The size of the workforce remained stagnant despite an acquisition workload that grew from $219 billion in 2000 to $400 billion in 2006, based on data collected by the Partnership for Public Service.
 
On a hiring roll
Perhaps the greatest challenge now facing the federal IT workforce is demographics. Despite its vigorous hiring efforts, Soloway said, DOD simply can’t keep pace. And the government faces a retirement wave because it has two-and-a-half times as many employees who are 55 or older as there are employees who are in their 20s, he said.

Soloway and Palguta cited the Partnership for Public Service’s recent survey of federal agencies that found that the government must add more than 11,000 employees to its IT workforce to fill mission-critical positions in the next two years.

“The IT workforce has been expanding since the dot-com bust,” Palguta said. “But we still face a skills gap. All these people [being hired now] need a greater degree of sophistication than we’ve had in the past. Federal [human resources] people are looking to the IT workforce to help end users be sophisticated and competent technology users. It’s become crucial to effective operations.”

Gallagher is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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