Brubaker: Before Clinger-Cohen, there was Chaos

The Computer Chaos report's impact on the way the government buys, uses technology continues to be felt

It has been more than a decade since the publication of "Computer Chaos: Billions Wasted Buying Federal Computer Systems."

When the report was published, I was the Republican staff director of the then-Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee. My boss, former Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), was the ranking Republican on that subcommittee.

Cohen has always been exceptional about recognizing members of his staff for the contributions they made to the work published under his name, but he didn't want anyone to question his involvement or commitment to reforming the way government works. To this day, he continues his work — often behind the scenes — to confront the challenges of modernizing government and changing its culture.

Although Cohen reviewed and approved every finding, recommendation and word in the "Computer Chaos" report, many on his staff influenced its outcome and the subsequent legislative response. Bob Tyrer, Cohen's staff director at the time, reminded staff members that if the report was going to initiate any policy changes, it needed to be clear, concise and — to use his words — pithy.

Bill Greenwalt, who is now a senior staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, played an important role in developing the findings and recommendations. But he also had the thankless task of subjecting himself to countless edits. Greenwalt's wife, Paula Matthews, actually came up with the report's title.

Speaking of edits, Kim Corthell, who at the time was the minority staff director for the Senate Judiciary Committee's Juvenile Justice Subcommittee, gave much of her time to extensive final edits and quality assurance.

Others, such as Peter Wade, who was detailed to the subcommittee staff from what was known then as the General Accounting Office, also played a role. Several others on detail contributed to the report, including Air Force acquisition professionals, who provided research and sanity checks. My role was to coordinate the moving parts.

The report was released Oct. 12, 1994, which, because of numerous delays by White House staff, was only a day before President Clinton signed into law the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA), the most sweeping reform of acquisition law up until that time.

It was a chilly ride on the staff bus to the White House. The mostly Democratic staffers mistakenly thought this was a deliberate attempt to minimize the accomplishment of FASA, which was being touted as the major acquisition reform component of the National Performance Review, and upstage the act's signing.

It was a matter of unfortunate timing. We had planned to release the report weeks after the signing ceremony was to take place. But the Clinton administration's delays resulted in FASA being signed the day after Cohen appeared on all the major networks describing how deficient U.S. acquisition law and policy were in preventing wasteful spending on inefficient processes and systems.

Cohen attended the FASA signing, and it was clear that the principals agreed that even after FASA there was still work to be done.

We began exploring the issue of automatic data-processing procurement reform in early 1992. After poring over thousands of pages of reports, studies, articles and books, and quietly interviewing experts and practitioners, we felt we were on to something.

A seminal meeting occurred the day before Clinton's first inauguration, when Steve Kelman, a Harvard professor and leading authority on government acquisition policy, came to Cohen's office to discuss the government's approach to technology acquisitions.

Once Kelman became administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, it was clear that Cohen would have an ally for change in the Clinton administration. Roger Johnson, then head of the General Services Administration, and John Koskinen, who was appointed deputy director of management at the Office of Management and Budget, also were supporters.

This trio elevated the discussion in the administration and gave us a top-quality team to work with. This team, along with the support of Elaine Kamarck, former Vice President Al Gore's senior policy adviser, was ready for reform.

Gore was launching the National Performance Review (NPR). As part of it, the administration examined many of the systemic issues related to the government's failure to transform its procurement practices. But in our view, its report seemed to tinker more at the edges than propose the focused, sweeping changes that we thought were needed to shock the system into performance.

For example, NPR's report called for raising the levels on delegations of procurement authority, but it was largely silent on what changes were required to adopt organizational best practices and focus on the underlying process change that was required before investing in technology.

The review's report also did not address other reforms such as eliminating the governmentwide bid-protest jurisdiction of GSA's Board of Contract Appeals. That reform required changing business processes and adopting performance-based contracting, architectures and business cases.

Brooks block

Given the political climate and the emotions being aroused by the discussion of modifying the Brooks Act — the law governing government IT buys — we surmised that the Clinton administration did not want to step out too far with its recommendations and risk alienating one of its biggest supporters, Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and somebody the administration knew it would need as an ally.

Brooks had a well-earned reputation for protecting his turf. The town was full of former government officials, lobbyists, staff and members who got crossways with Brooks, and it was clear that nobody wanted to cross him by trying to institute meaningful reform to the Brooks Act.

Brooks' power became clear during FASA negotiations. When we suggested that Cohen was interested in amending the Brooks Act, we were told those changes would not be considered for fear of alienating Brooks and losing House support for FASA.

Cohen's inclination was to call Brooks and work something out, as the two men did with the Competition in Contracting Act earlier in their careers. But we decided to let FASA play out and save the IT reform for another day. We thought the reforms were too important to get watered down in some other piece of legislation.

We needed a campaign rather than simply offering a legislative fix, soliciting co-sponsors and then watching it die. To succeed, we had to earn the public's support. This was a calculated risk. We decided we should issue the report, gauge reaction, then base the subsequent legislative proposal on pushing the envelope as far as we could based on that reaction.

We issued the report with a legislative outline in mind that would amend the Brooks Act.

It seems, however, that the reform gods had a different plan. Less than a month after we issued "Computer Chaos," the GOP took over the House and Senate. My boss suddenly found himself in the majority party and chairman of the subcommittee. Brooks lost his seat in the House.

This unusual chain of events caused us to push the envelope much further than we had anticipated. We decided to propose a repeal of the Brooks Act and drive reform as hard as we could.

It was only after the 1994 election and the passage of reforms that we realized it would symbolize the beginning of the legislative effort to reform how the government approaches technology acquisition. At the time, the federal IT community largely ignored the report.

Regardless of whether one liked the report, its impact on the way the government buys and uses technology continues to be felt.

Brubaker is executive vice president and chief marketing officer at SI International. In the 1990s, he served as the Republican staff director of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee's Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee.

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