GPO bill a stake in the heart of procurement reform

Few government procurement reforms of the last decade have done more to set the tone and style for a smaller and more flexible government than the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. Passed with strong bipartisan support, the procurement framework that Clinger-Cohen created finally allowed federal agencies to gain control of their own purchasing requirements and held them accountable for their results.

Now, only two short years later, and just when the reforms have begun to improve the way government works, the Wendell H. Ford Government Publications Act (S. 2288) would begin to unravel the steady progress made under Clinger-Cohen. No one doubts the longstanding and sincere commitment of the bill's two chief sponsors, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.), to provide the public with open and free access to all government publications and information. But one must ask: Is the bill the right answer for the Information Age?

The first half of the bill is focused on how government publications and information should be purchased. Ironically, the bill would require every government publication or instrument of government information to be purchased solely through the Government Printing Office. What events occurred in the past two years to carry us so far from the Clinger-Cohen philosophy of increased agency autonomy, flexibility and accountability?

Unfortunately, S. 2288 signals a return to a Brooks Act-like era when procurements took years, not days or hours, to complete, and the General Services Administration dictated how every information technology dollar was spent. If the bill is signed into law, instead of GSA it would be GPO— perhaps the strangest federal monopoly in existence— that would dictate how agencies spent money.

S. 2288 attempts to impose stringent rules on the application of new technologies that are completely anachronistic when compared with the revolutionary methods through which people and entities now communicate. In fact, high-tech companies are developing technologies that could offer creative ways to produce and disseminate government information. No bill that creates a centralized, dictatorial approach to government information dissemination can possibly capture the inherent efficiencies to be gained by these new approaches to electronic publishing and dissemination.

The Office of Management and Budget, speaking for the Clinton administration, has summarized its opposition in simple terms: "S. 2288 moves counter to the direction being taken by the private sector as well as the rest of the federal government in information management practices."

Private organizations, such as the Information Technology Industries Council, the Information Technology Association of America, the Professional Services Council and others who have taken the time to read the lengthy bill, all seem to share the same view: The bill does not represent progress; instead, it drives a stake through the heart of those who fought so long to achieve meaningful procurement reform.

-- Johnson, formerly director of the National Technical Information Service until he retired in May, is vice president for technology and strategic studies at Federal Sources Inc., a McLean, Va., market research firm that specializes in federal IT markets.

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