More at risk than dollars

It would be a mistake to think that this month's award of the Navy Marine

Corps Intranet contract signals the successful end to a politically charged

and controversial information technology discussion. In fact, it has just

begun.

What's at stake is much more than NMCI's nearly $7 billion price tag.

Nothing less than the future of federal IT outsourcing depends on the success

of the program.

Under the NMCI pact, prime contractor Electronic Data Systems Corp.

will take over the ownership and operation of the IT hardware, software

and services that will make up the new intranet — ultimately a 350,000-seat

network that will tie together a disparate set of networks on bases and

on ships at sea. The program is a central component to the Navy's "network-centric"

warfare strategy, which relies on computers to help fight future battles.

Top Pentagon officials use the word "revolutionary" to describe the

Navy's and Marine Corps' willingness to turn over systems to a commercial

vendor. It is a revolution that the Navy and EDS must win. Outsourcing federal

networks, called seat management, must become a common practice if agencies

want to meet the IT demands of the future. With estimates projecting that

the federal government will lose half of its IT workforce in the next five

years, outsourcing will be one of the pivotal ways to get all the government's

IT work done.

A failure with NMCI — measured by large budget overruns, delays and

systems that don't work well or don't meet the Navy's needs — could set

seat management, and outsourcing in general, back a few years. Some may

never try it.

NMCI is a huge project, and some miscues can be expected. But the Navy

and EDS should be sobered by the fact that not only is national defense

riding on the success of the project, but maybe even the move toward outsourcing

more government IT work. The immense proj-ect calls for realistic goals

along with the expectation that the Navy, EDS and Congress will give it

the priority and support it deserves.

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