Ex-GSA exec looks back with pride

William Cunnane, former General Services Administration deputy assistant administrator for FTS 2000, left his 35-year career of government service last month with a sense of tangible accomplishment in helping shape today's advanced, as well as low-cost, federal telecommunications system.

In a post-retirement interview, Cunnane looked back with satisfaction at more than one large job well done and expressed concern about GSA's future telecom plans, particularly the transition from the original FTS to the less expensive and ubiquitous service federal users enjoy today.

Among Cunnane's accomplishments, the one that still gives him the greatest pride is the smooth one-weekend transition from the old system to the current one.

Cunnane praised the program to which he devoted much of his career, observing that FTS 2000 prices have fallen from an average 28 cents per minute to "less than a nickel" in seven years. "We will come close at the end of the program to surpassing $5 billion in savings," Cunnane predicted. "And when you leave a program that shows that kind of savings, that's quite satisfying."

As his colleagues know, Cunnane dares to speak his mind when he feels strongly about an issue. He also frequently refutes what often passes for conventional wisdom.

For example, while many program managers dread congressional oversight, Cunnane believes it was absolutely essential to the success of FTS 2000. He said GSA would never have opted for a dual-vendor approach if not for the insistence and persistence of former Texas congressman Jack Brooks.

"I would certainly never have thought of that," Cunnane said. "In fact, I thought it was not a very smart idea to have two winners split it 60-40. But I can tell you now, I wish it had been my idea.

"We need Congress to look over the shoulders of government agencies," he added. "We don't like them to micromanage us, but we do need them to challenge us. I hope it continues."

Perhaps even more rare for a federal official, Cunnane complimented the press. "I've enjoyed dealing with the press," he said. "The first year when we didn't spend much time with reporters, they thought we were almost hiding something. I thought that I didn't need the exposure, and the program just needed to do its jobs. But I came to realize that the press has no agenda other than to get the facts out. We can give reporters the information, and they can communicate it to our 1.7 million customers."

No Rosy Future

Cunnane's comments on the future of federal telecom were less than glowing. He said GSA's efforts to field a follow-on to FTS 2000 have been fundamentally flawed, although he has had no connection with the Post-FTS 2000 program. Most of all, he believes the tendency of GSA upper management to shy away from regulations that mandate federal agencies acquire telecommunications through a central program such as FTS 2000 could threaten the viability of a follow-on.

"I'm concerned that mandatory use is a concept that no one wants to discuss," he said. "I don't know how anyone can give them the best prices if they don't have some sort of minimum guarantee. I don't believe the current program could have been successful if it hadn't been for mandatory use."

Cunnane also criticized GSA's plan to award multiple contracts far beyond the two that constitute the current program. By awarding three or more comprehensive contracts as well as separate contracts for "niche" services, GSA could jeopardize the volume discounts vendors would be able to offer the government, he said.

He added that additional vendors would also force users to make more off-network calls to reach other agencies on a different vendor's network rather than making less expensive on-net calls. Consequently, the government's efforts to increase competition might actually end up increasing the cost of telecommunications, Cunnane said.

On program management, Cunnane said it will be more difficult to establish effective users groups if agencies are disbursed among a large number of contractors. Finally, Cunnane said, GSA may lack the resources to deal with multiple vendors. "Just the time it takes to deal with the two FTS 2000 vendors is substantial," he said. "I can't imagine having 10 or 12 in there."

Now a consultant with Wheat International Communications Corp., Vienna, Va., Cunnane said he is enjoying life in the private sector. Over the past three weeks, he has spent much of his time briefing his colleagues on the wealth of experience he has gleaned over the years and learning the ropes at his new work place.

"It's a learning curve for me, but it's fun," he said. "I don't have 225 people to worry about every day.

"I can't say I don't miss [government work]," he added. "Sometimes I can't help but wonder how [GSA personnel] are handling this or that project. But I don't dwell on it too much."

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