COMMENTARY

Why reaction to 'IT cartel' comment misses the point

Alan Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems' Internet Business Solutions Group.

It’s been a little over a month since the lively round of “Farewell, Vivek” events, and how quickly we have soured on the beloved former federal CIO.

Kundra had the temerity to state in a New York Times editorial that governments around the world are wasting billions of dollars on unnecessary IT and to claim that the problem had worsened in recent years because of what he called the “IT cartel.”

The cartel is a powerful group of private contractors that encourage “reliance on inefficient software and hardware that is expensive to acquire and to maintain,” Kundra wrote.

The response drew immediate fire. Federal Computer Week’s article garnered responses on both sides of the argument. Phil Bond, president of TechAmerica, said Kundra “couldn’t be more wrong in describing federal IT contractors as a ‘cartel.’”

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, said Kundra’s comments were inappropriate, adding, “I’m sure some people were offended.”

Consultant Mark Amtower dubbed Kundra’s language inflammatory. Several commenters started their rebuttals with definitions of “cartel,” such as, “an association of manufacturers or suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition.”

So how can we assess Kundra’s claim? First, I think what exists is not by any means a cartel. It’s an oligopoly perhaps (look that one up in your Funk and Wagnalls!). Second, I was surprised that not a single commenter seemed upset by or challenged the first sentence in Kundra’s editorial, about billions being wasted on IT. Are we so jaundiced in our thinking that we don’t even question that statement?

Frankly, I was more upset by that assumption than by his misuse of the word “cartel.” I would say he was guilty of hyperbole (meaning “an obvious and intentional exaggeration”). But that is common in our community. We hold “executive” events for 1,000 people. We dub someone a czar who only has a bully pulpit. We pass out awards to marginal figures. So give Kundra some slack. He’s only guilty of what so many of us are — phrase mongering.

We should focus instead on the work of the so-called supercommittee (officially, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, so perhaps there’s a bit of hyperbole in that, too), which is tasked under the Budget Control Act of 2011 with identifying as much as $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reductions over the next decade. If lawmakers can’t agree on a package of cuts by late December, then automatic cuts, known as sequesters, will kick in beginning in 2013 and going through 2021. At the Defense Department, those cuts and the reductions under way already would amount to as much as $850 billion, a “doomsday mechanism that would imperil national security,” according to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

So the pressure will be on the supercommittee, whose members have reputations as deal-makers. The question now is whether that group can draw on its combined 180-plus years of congressional experience to forge an agreement.

I was pleasantly surprised by most of the panel picks; there are a lot of IQ points on the committee. You have some tech-savvy members in Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). I’d say there is at least a 50-50 chance that they can craft a bipartisan pact close to the “grand bargain” that President Barack Obama has sought. It will make for an interesting few months.

About the Author

Alan P. Balutis is senior director and distinguished fellow at Cisco Systems.

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