Get used to politics as usual

A congressman from Missouri has given the federal information technology community a valuable, though inadvertent, reminder that any effort to bring about dramatic change in government, no matter how sensible, must take into account political ramifications.

In this particular case, Rep. James Talent (R-Mo.) has introduced language into the fiscal 2000 Defense authorization bill that, if passed, may derail a critical Defense Department initiative to bring about some much-needed improvements to its logistics operations by making smarter use of information technology. The initiative, the Army's Wholesale Logistics Modernization Program, involves turning over two software development centers to the private sector, potentially affecting 550 government jobs. Talent, a gubernatorial candidate in Missouri who has the backing of labor unions, does not want to lose jobs in an election year, no matter how few. The rider he put in the spending bill essentially would freeze the outsourcing effort until 2001.

The Pentagon, of course, is no stranger to political maneuverings, particularly when it comes to outsourcing. But only rarely do people in the IT community at DOD and other agencies see such critical programs brought down by old-fashioned political wrangling, which typically has nothing to do with a project's merits.

That, however, is changing. Every year, technology takes on a larger role in government operations, and agencies are turning to IT more often to bring about dramatic changes. But every time agencies strike out into new territory, they are likely to step on someone's turf. The General Services Administration has recognized such perils and has made politics a new focus of its revamped Trail Boss leadership program for federal IT executives.

It would be easy to label Talent's move as "politics as usual," but it should not be ignored. Politics in action is not pretty and sometimes seems to fly in the face of common sense. But politics is part of our reality. Federal IT executives ought to prepare as much as possible for the political storms their programs can stir.

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