Texas native wrangles info technology for Treasury

Stephen Bryant assistant director in the Treasury Department's Office of Information Resources Management has decorated his office with photographs of desert flowers from his native Texas. He caught "Potomac fever" as a congressional intern in the '60s but he still calls Dallas where he went to high school home.

"They're always highly suspicious of me " Bryant joked about his family back home in the Lone Star State.He began his 22-year federal career as a political scientist interested in public administration and he immersed himself in information technology only a decade ago. "It became abundantly clear to me that IT was reaping huge dividends in productivity " he said.

Today his primary responsibilities include developing the criteria that Treasury will follow to decide in accordance with the Clinger-Cohen Act which of its information systems will contribute the most to its bureaus' missions.

Noting that "the heavy hand of regulation under the Brooks Act is no longer in place " Bryant said agencies need a new type of discipline to guide IT programs. Treasury bureaus "are getting the message" that they must now prove their systems support at least one of their mission-related goals he said.

VA Case Illustrates Procurement Woes

Many IT managers have procurement horror stories and Bryant is no exception. He relates that when he worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs - in his first IT job - the graphics department got buried by regulations when it tried to buy a design system. It could have been an off-the-shelf acquisition Bryant said. But because it cost just slightly more than what agencies were allowed to spend without getting a delegation of procurement authority from the General Services Administration "that tied their hands for a year " he said.

"By the time the bureaucratic ball got rolling we couldn't backtrack " he said. "It made my blood boil. These people were essentially graphic artists not IT people but they knew they needed the technology."

Under Clinger-Cohen technology users are supposed to have a greater role in deciding which systems to buy. But they have other challenges. Now agencies are grappling with how to justify the costs of maintaining the systems they purchased under the old rules Bryant said. Although they are supposed to perform cost-benefit analyses to show why their systems should be funded "we can't even go back to when the system was built to get a baseline " he lamented.

In the '60s as an undergraduate and master's degree student at the University of North Texas in Denton Bryant was inspired to seek a career in government by Chester Newland a professor with whom he studied. It was Newland now a professor of public administration at the University of Southern California who helped arrange Bryant's internship with then Texas Rep. Graham Purcell a Democrat.

Bryant received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1971 and joined the government through a fellowship with the Justice Department in 1975. He did a stint at the General Accounting Office and at one point worked on productivity studies for the Office of Personnel Management.

His background as a student of politics has helped him to understand that despite the business-oriented rhetoric of government management today agencies will not make spending decisions the way private companies do.

"Political science gives you an appreciation of the way decision making is divided for good reasons in government [with multiple layers of oversight] " he said.

This lesson hit home recently when Bryant briefly ran Treasury's Simplified Tax and Wage Reporting System (STAWRS) project. A joint effort between Treasury the Labor Department the Social Security Administration and state governments STAWRS has struggled for years to surmount bureaucratic and legal obstacles that have hampered its progress.

The system aims to help employers reduce their paperwork by allowing them to file tax information once to both federal and state revenue agencies. Shortly after Bryant took over STAWRS about three years ago the project team killed a plan to build a central database that would keep track of what data employers turned in to whom.

This "database in the sky " as Bryant calls it was politically unpopular and likely to be expensive.

Employers thought the proposal made the federal government into "Big Brother " and none of the agencies involved with the system wanted to give up control of information they were accustomed to maintaining.

"You can't just go for a quick technological fix " Bryant said. "There was a simple answer and it was wrong." Instead STAWRS produced a prototype in which employers' data was transmitted to various state and federal agencies through value-added networks.

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