Budget battles may fuel ongoing government IRM brain drain

Agencies yet to receive fiscal 1996 funding were left with skeletal staffs to keep systems up and running last week. But the more damaging long-term impact of the three-week shutdown may be the departure of disgruntled federal information technology personnel.

Information resources management officials interviewed last week said they fear that many of their staff members tired of being caught in the middle of the budget battle may look for jobs in the private sector. Such an exodus would drain IRM offices of much-needed talent at a time when the government is turning to technology to achieve greater efficiencies.

At the U.S. Geological Society some IRM staff members have already sent out resumes. "I've learned that some people are looking for jobs on the outside " said Rick MacDonald special assistant to the chief of the Office of Program Support. "We're going to lose some very qualified people who have the most talent. They say the work is interesting but you have to get paid."

Officials such as Paul Wohlleben deputy director of IRM at the Environmental Protection Agency worry that the shutdown has beaten the motivation out of many computer specialists.

"Something like this wears down that sense of public service and I'm convinced it wears down that motivation to do it " he said. "Once they're back on the job you're going to see that and people are going to leave."

Mothballing Development

For IRM staff at the Social Security Administration the shutdown has meant mothballing the development of large systems to improve programs such as disability claims program which has been the subject of widespread abuse and fraud.

"To say that things like that aren't important enough to work on is damaging" to employees said Dean Mesterharm deputy commissioner of systems for the SSA. "They expect people to come back and take their work seriously again? That's just not reasonable."

And it is not just IRM staff members who are looking to greener pastures. Senior federal managers are also looking at private-sector opportunities according to Paul Dinte president of Dinte Resources Inc. a McLean Va. executive search firm. "A lot more of the people who are contacting us want to make a break into the private sector after making their careers in federal agencies " he said.

Dinte said Senior Executive Service-level employees have contacted his firm regarding private-sector work. He said those calls have multiplied from perhaps one per quarter to several a week over the past three months.

One vendor already has benefited from the first wave of departing employees. Computer Associates International Inc.'s consulting business has hired a number of employees—"in the double digits " according to Mike Miller vice president of sales at CA. "These people are already being put to use on contracting assignments as essential employees."

Unfunded Agencies Cope

The nine departments still without funding have met with different fates during the shutdown. Some agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service continued to keep systems up and running because many networks received funding from earlier bills or were deemed vital to national safety.

For example INS continued developing its Ident system an automated fingerprint identification system that stores fingerprints and photos of persons caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. Ident's funding was part of the 1994 crime bill.

"We're working virtually 100 percent now " said Ron Collison director of IRM.

For the Justice Department overall systems supporting law enforcement have remained operable with only one hitch: During the weekend before Christmas a small fire ignited in one of the mainframes in DOJ's Dallas data center. Some furloughed personnel were called in to transfer data to another mainframe.

The situation was handled quickly but it was a strong reminder of what can go wrong. The shutdown "makes me very nervous " said Mark Boster deputy assistant attorney general for IRM. "You never know what's going to happen."

Elsewhere entire systems were shuttered as money ran out. On Jan. 2 the Environmental Protection Agency turned off the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Information System its large computer system that tracks cleanup efforts at Super Fund sites nationwide. With CERCLIS off-line the EPA's Information Technology Division was working with less than 10 percent of its normal staff.

For the most part major systems remained operational throughout the government. The SSA's systems which support field offices remained open. Likewise NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center reported that all mission-related computers were fully up and running to prepare for the next shuttle launch.

Procurement Activity Slows

But while many existing systems remained on-line some agencies stopped procurements and the development of new systems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for example halted the bid evaluation for its estimated $330 million CDC Information Systems Support Service contract.

The contract which was scheduled to be awarded in June will certainly be pushed back.~~CDC also has delayed adding more databases on CDC Wonder which provides information and statistics on numerous public health topics over the Internet.

"From an IRM technology perspective the shutdown is pretty much a minor disruption " said Jim Seligman director of CDC's IRM office. "But more importantly it will affect our work flow."

Efforts to ensure that large projects stay on schedule and within budget also received blows. The shutdown forced officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget to cancel a meeting Dec. 20 and another Jan. 4 to discuss the management and financing of the $127 million Medicare Transaction System (MTS) the Health Care Financing Administration's new computer network designed to fight Medicare fraud.

The General Accounting Office last year warned that the system was at risk for missing its September 1997 installation deadline and for cost overruns.

"MTS was in a tight time line as it was " said Neil Stillman deputy assistant secretary for IRM at HHS. "Now it's just getting tighter."

The SSA's $800 million Intelligent Workstation/Local-Area Network proj-ect which will put more than 50 000 computers on field workers' desks avoided being shelved during the shutdown in November. But this time it will not be so lucky. The evaluation of bids is continuing but once that process is complete any further work will stop Mesterharm said.

-- John Stein MONROE and John Moore contributed to this article.

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