Program managers find budget process 'flawed'

Key procurement reforms of the past five years have not necessarily worked as intended, according to information technology managers interviewed for a study that will be released this week by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM). A focus group of 11 IT program manag

Key procurement reforms of the past five years have not necessarily worked as intended, according to information technology managers interviewed for a study that will be released this week by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM).

A focus group of 11 IT program managers said that a "burdensome" budget process hampers their ability to successfully develop new systems, despite new planning and management requirements that aim to support the best projects and keep them on schedule. In addition, the group said new procurement practices have not been applied consistently and have not always resulted in better deals for products and services.

The study, conducted for the CIO Council, was designed to identify "significant IT system development issues" for further research and did not reach any conclusions about the success of procurement reform. It is the first look at what federal IT program managers, who have daily responsibilities to make sure new systems are built, think about recent reforms.

"There's nothing you'd look at in here and say, 'I never thought about that,' " said Alan Balutis, deputy chief information officer with the Commerce Department, who was president of AFFIRM when the study was conducted last spring. "It's not to say any of these things are the proper and correct perspective, but they're interesting viewpoints and need more examination."

The program managers agreed most strongly that the federal budget process is "flawed," commenting that final budget decisions are being made in the Office of Management and Budget and in Congress by people who do not know enough about IT. Failure to fully fund individual systems or the infrastructure that supports them undermines managers' ability to deliver projects on time, the program managers said.

Program managers "were pretty forthright that the budget process looks at IT but not necessarily at the whole infrastructure," said Robert Golas, executive director for business development with Oracle Federal and a member of the committee that convened the focus group. "I think that may have been talked about quietly, but this report brings it out boldly." The committee also included FCW editor Joanne Connelly.

Although the managers said the easier-to-use General Services Administration schedule allowed them to purchase products and services more quickly, they did not think they always got the best deals or the latest technology. Meanwhile, they reported that governmentwide acquisition contracts are sometimes used by vendors to circumvent prime contractors and by agencies to avoid competition.

They also said that although CIOs have an important role in managing their agencies' IT infrastructure, they do not have enough money and staff to do the job well, nor do they have much impact on development of individual systems.

In addition, the program managers were skeptical about whether "performance-based" contracts that reward vendors for good work offer any benefits, noting that managers are reluctant to appear "easy" on their contractors. On the other hand, the managers said that when it comes to rating vendors on their past performance, agency staffs do not "do a good enough job establishing performance standards and providing constructive feedback," and assessments are not completely reliable.

"The report to me sounds as if it was an interesting snapshot in time," said Larry Allen, executive director with the Coalition for Government Procurement, a vendor group. "The federal IT market is so fluid that [the study] may not reflect today's reality" even after a few months, he said.

Allen said complaints about GSA schedule prices "are as old as the hills," but customers usually pay less than the prices listed on the schedule. Nevertheless, he said "some of the points [of the study] are valid," such as the observation that many contracting officers do not know how to use the schedules and that improvements are needed in how agencies rate vendors' performance.

AFFIRM plans to use the study to devise a broader survey of government IT program managers that it will conduct within the next year. Meanwhile, according to Balutis, who also chairs the CIO Council's Outreach Committee, the council will use the study to plan its research agenda for the next year.

The study will be available this week at www.affirm.org.

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