'Government makes a difference'

At a time when criticizing the federal government and its employees has become high fashion the presence of someone like John Ortego seems almost anachronistic. Quite simply Ortego still thinks our government has a substantial and positive impact on the everyday lives of U.S. citizens. And he stands by his original reason for beginning a government career: to make a contribution to that noble effort.

Ortego deputy assistant commissioner for the General Services Administration's Information Technology Integration (ITI) service and acting director of the agency's Federal Computer Acquisition Center began his federal career in 1970. Hailing from the small farm town of Washington La. Ortego was raised in an area that viewed the government as a friendly force that could assist those who needed help.

"The government helped my parents out of the Great Depression " he said. "I fundamentally believe the government makes a difference. If you don't believe that go to any town on the border of Arizona and Mexico. It's basically a struggling [Mexican] society on one side and a prosperous [U.S.] society on the other. And the only difference between those two places is their governments."

So how does he feel about the fed-bashing one often hears? Surprisingly he finds it encouraging. "We're a free society " he said. "The fact that we are criticized makes us stronger."

Career Choices

Ortego decided on a government career when recruiting personnel from the General Accounting Office showed up on the campus of the University of Southwestern Louisiana where he was studying business administration and management. The GAO people offered him a job at their offices in New Orleans and Ortego accepted.

Four years later he began auditing information systems. Then in 1976 he was detailed to the House Government Operations Committee then headed by former Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas). He reviewed agencies' procurement plans on Brooks' behalf and advised the congressman's staff on which systems should proceed and which plans should be altered.

Many believe Brooks' oversight ideas are now outmoded but Ortego believes a lot of good came out of the Brooks Act. "We were trying to learn how to manage technology " he said. "At the time one or two companies were very strong. And without forced competition it would have been hard for other companies to enter the market. I don't think that companies like Amdahl would have made it without the Brooks Act. But I don't think there is a need for that kind of legislation now."

His work at GAO prepared him for his next assignment in 1981 at the Department of Veterans Affairs then called the Veterans Administration. The VA was looking for someone well-versed in ADP procurement issues to modernize its antiquated data center in Austin Texas. Ortego filled the bill.

He speaks of his stint at the VA with obvious pride. He directed the development of a five-year modernization plan. With extremely limited resources and amid a bureaucratic environment fraught with turf battles he was able to improve the automation used to pay veterans' compensation claims keep track of hospitals' inventories pay VA employees and perform other functions.

"The VA has a very noble role and I'm very proud of what we did in Austin " he said. "When I left there in 1986 that was a model center. It still is."

After leaving the VA he moved to GSA to become director of the Northern Virginia operations site of the agency's Federal Systems Integration and Management Center (Fedsim). Ortego said the site which relied mainly on in-house staff to do systems integration work for federal customers was doing less than $1 million worth of business each year when he arrived. He pushed Fedsim to use outside vendors and expand its services. By the time he left the operation earlier this year to assume his current duties it was providing services worth about $200 million per year he said.

"When I came to Washington from Austin I didn't know anyone " he recalled. "It took a while to establish myself here. It took two years to get to what I considered a profitable position. And from years two to five we continued to grow our business with different product offerings."

Ortego spearheaded initiatives for governmentwide contracts for disaster recovery and virtual data center services during that period. He also issued a report on behalf of the National Performance Review on governmentwide data center consolidation. "It was somewhat controversial but I stand behind it without batting an eye " he asserted.

And although he is now in a position of greater authority Ortego continues to dream up ways to expand GSA's product line. His latest initiative is "seat management " a program that will essentially turn over all responsibility for acquiring managing and upgrading agencies' desktop gear to private vendors. A solicitation for seat management will be released July 1. "I tell my staff that July 1 is not a target it's a due date " he said.

But he hasn't stopped there. He is now kicking around the idea of awarding multiple contracts to vendors that would help redesign an agency's payroll system for example. A vendor could then claim a percentage of any documented savings accrued due to the redesign. By using multiple awards agencies could select the vendor that would lay claim to the lowest percentage of the savings.

Ortego said a lot of legal barriers remain to making such a concept reality. But he hopes to begin the program within a year.

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