Clarke leaves IT legacy at DOD

This weekend, as Army Col. John Clarke begins to ease out of federal service and into civilian life, he'll be doing something that he finds very familiar: building and repairing things.

In this case, the things will be houses in Appalachia. Clarke will be pitching in for an entire week on a service project with the church he attends in Annandale, Va.

But for the past several years, Clarke has been busy building something less tangible: a program aimed at making the Defense Department more efficient in the way it buys medical supplies - from pain pills to wheelchairs.

Information technology represents a key source of this increased efficiency. And although Clarke is leaving the military for a job in the private sector, he still talks enthusiastically about the Defense Medical Logistics Standard Support program as if he will be running it for another decade.

The lobby of the DMLSS program office in Northern Virginia is adorned with scads of charts and plans on how DOD can save millions of dollars on the billions it spends on pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and surgical supplies.

Already, DMLSS (pronounced "dimmels") has made headway in using IT to bring savings.

But where IT will really pay off, according to Clarke, is in one simple number - a universal product number that makers of medical and surgical supplies could use to label and identify their products. The drug industry already uses such a universal code to identify drugs.

The code enables DOD and other users to easily store and search price information on a particular drug - ibuprofen, for example - in DOD computer systems because all manufacturers of ibuprofen use a single number to identify the drug. And DOD workers already are using that standardized drug code to sift through drug prices and find the best value.

But the situation is different when it comes to medical and surgical supplies. All makers of wheelchairs, for example, do not use a single number to identify a product as a wheelchair. And that makes it difficult for DOD to quickly analyze its price choices.

For DOD medical operations, a universal product number for medical supplies and surgical equipment could save the federal government $60 million a year, Clarke said. The decision to create such a product-number system is in the hands of industry, but Clarke, along with others at DOD, has become something of an evangelist on the need for the number.

"DOD's pushing," he said. "We need to insist that, as people come into our e-malls, we have a common identifier."

But for Clarke, the pushing - at least from within DOD - has come to an end. He is officially retiring from the military next month and moving to a job with Science Applications International Corp.

His career path with DOD had been fairly focused. He joined the Army in 1970, after getting a bachelor's degree in economics from Rice University in Houston, where he had played on the golf team. (He lost twice to Tom Kite, a man who would go on to win the U.S. Open in 1992.)

Army life was not new to Clarke. When he was 5 years old, his father joined the Army as a chaplain.

In the Army, Clarke worked his way up through a series of medical logistics job, serving for three years in the Army surgeon general's office until moving to DMLSS in 1993. Then things got fun. "I think the real excitement came when I came to this program," Clarke said. "There is nothing that did not make good business sense that we have not been able to do in this program."

But he noted that some DOD workers are still resistant to change, and keeping good employees has been difficult as industry has wooed them away. "We've been very successful in acquisition reform," he said. "We've not been very successful in personnel reform."

The federal government does not devote enough resources to keeping those excellent workers, Clarke added.

"The inability of our IT community to put incentives out there to keep the best and the brightest is just damn criminal," he said.

Although he is retiring from the military, Clarke is not finished improving government operations. At SAIC, he said, he should have an opportunity to continue to give agencies tools that will make them work more efficiently.

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