Decker makes a career of battling bureaucracy
Ron Decker's career illustrates how the efforts of forward-thinking federal employees often are stymied by bureaucracy and turf issues. But it also shows how persistence can force these new ideas to ultimately take hold and change things for the better.
Decker, who is the director of the General Services Administration's Federal Computer Acquisition Center (Fedcac), was instrumental in introducing PCs to GSA employees back when most managers felt protective of their mainframes. He pushed for electronic access to GSA's program data by customer agencies at a time when others at the agency felt threatened by such initiatives. And he oversaw a regional program in Kansas City, Mo., for fast information technology acquisition services that was criticized harshly by many at GSA headquarters but adopted agencywide.
The driving force throughout Decker's federal career, which began in 1975 at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, was an idealism instilled in him during the Vietnam War.
"I came through the 1960s and got very involved in social issues and civil rights," Decker recalled. "The Vietnam situation became very important. I got drafted out of college and served in Colorado Springs. I was not a great supporter of the effort, but I thought I owed it to the system that had provided me so much."
After leaving the military and returning to graduate school, Decker became a health care consultant.
The consulting work brought Decker to the attention of HUD managers, who asked him to come to Washington, D.C. Decker agreed and stayed with the agency for more than three years.
He arrived at GSA's Denver office in the late 1970s, just as the possibilities presented by IT were becoming known. He jumped on the bandwagon with both feet.
"I [was] intrigued by the interface of new technology with people and how original systems accept new technology, whether it's pencil and paper, radio and TV, or a computer," Decker said. "It was a challenge. We were starting to do stuff with word processing that was new, and it was affecting how people did things."
"In the Denver region, we ended up with the best word processing group in the country, and we integrated the use of word processors into the Public Building Service and the Federal Supply Service there. I made a presentation on that to some people in Washington, D.C., and they asked me to help them introduce PC technology throughout GSA."
The efforts of Decker's group did not bear fruit for nearly 10 years -- by which time 12,000 PCs had been introduced into the agency. Although Frank Carr, former head of GSA's now-defunct Information Technology Service, supported the early PC effort, middle management staunchly resisted, Decker said. "ITS people were afraid of PCs," he said. "They were mainframe people, and it was a control issue."
Decker ran into similar roadblocks during his next assignment in 1989 as director of GSA's Information Architecture Program. "I envisioned that customers would come in [to a GSA system] and pull out information on the status [of task orders] or to put in their requirements electronically," he said. "I thought GSA was ready to integrate information systems with its work processes and its relationships with customers. I was wrong."
Although this precursor to electronic commerce is becoming commonplace now, Decker said GSA was not ready for it in the late 1980s. "It was turf," he said.
Until then, Decker had become interested in such concepts as customer focus, quality management and business process re-engineering. This time, Decker's timing was right on the money, and he became part of Vice President Al Gore's government reinvention effort. As part of the effort, Decker ran GSA's quality management and customer service program from 1990 to 1994.
"That was exciting," he said. "We focused on the philosophy of doing it right the first time, with the customer setting the requirements."
In 1994 Decker moved the program out to GSA's Kansas City regional office to test the idea of running a nationwide program from a regional office. The next year he was appointed assistant regional administrator of the Kansas City office.
Just before Decker's tenure, the Kansas City acquisition staff began raising eyebrows by developing a program to provide IT products and services -- mostly from small and disadvantaged businesses -- to agencies that could not obtain them fast enough through other procurement vehicles. The program, which uses its own or other existing government contracts, created controversy, and many GSA officials outside of Kansas City questioned its legality.
"It was kind of something that just happened," Decker said of the program. "It was used if someone needed a computer quickly, and the normal acquisition process got bogged down. A couple of people [at the Kansas City office] saw an existing government contract where they could get a computer quickly. When they did it that first time, they realized they could do it again."
The program was responsible for acquisitions worth about $25 million a year when Decker became head of the region. After reviewing the program, he decided to let it continue.
GSA officials in Washington pulled the plug on the program a couple years ago, citing legal concerns. But they apparently liked the concept and resurrected it as a nationwide program known as Federal Acquisition Services for Technology. Last year, those same officials asked Decker to return to Washington to work in the Federal Telecommunications Service's Office of Information Technology Integration and later named him director of Fedcac. Decker assisted in opening a Fedcac office in Washington and already is planning changes, such as a new emphasis on smaller acquisitions. He also hopes to do a better job of matching agencies' requirements to vendors' capabilities.
"We may have some new ideas," Decker said.