Integrators push for rule amendment

A second attempt by federal procurement officials to guide agencies toward building information systems piece by piece is still missing a key element according to contractors who would be affected by the policy.

A coalition of integrators is pushing to amend a newly proposed rule on so-called modular contracting so that agencies cannot hold vendors responsible if disparate parts of a system built under different contracts don't work together properly. The vendors want the Federal Acquisition Regulation to warn agencies that if they are unprepared to shoulder the integration risks of a modular project they should buy their system another way.

"If you're mixing new stuff and old stuff you have to understand it's risky " said Ron Knecht corporate vice president for business development with Science Applications International Corp. "It's new and different and you have to do [things] fast."

Knecht testified at a recent FAR Council hearing about the rule on behalf of three information technology trade associations. "All we were trying to do is have a cautionary note in there " he said.

The Clinger-Cohen Act which became law last summer designates modular contracting as the preferred approach for building complex information systems. The law tells agencies to build such systems in increments that are easier to manage than one monolithic project and that don't depend on each other to operate. In addition the law suggests that vendors deliver system modules within 18 months of receiving a contract.

Last year the FAR Council proposed a regulation to carry out the law that mainly reiterated the statute. In the subsequent months vendors and some Defense Department officials complained that agencies needed more explicit guidance as to how they should carry out this part of the law.

Modular contracting has been controversial partly because federal agencies have little experience with the practice and partly because it would change traditional relationships between agencies and vendors.

Keeping it Flexible

The new proposal offers some new details but policy makers deliberately tried to keep the language flexible said Steven Kelman administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. "My impression of the proposed rule is that it covers most of the important bases " he said.

Instead the administration may develop training materials such as the best-practices guides that OFPP and other groups have issued to augment other procurement reform regulations.

"On both [agency and vendor] sides people are used to living in a very prescriptive environment " said Paul Brubaker vice president for federal information systems with Litton/PRC Inc. and who worked as an aide to the law's sponsor former Sen. William Cohen now Defense Secretary. "I think people are afraid of getting out from underneath the guidance umbrella so there's something they can point to when there's a screw up."

Olga Grkavac senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America one of the trade groups represented at the public hearing said the fact that the proposed regulatory language didn't change much suggests it's been hard even for agencies to reach a consensus.

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