Now you know it's serious

Federal agencies generally fall into two camps when it comes to out-sourcing

information technology services. In the one are agencies that simply aren't

interested. In the other are agencies that are interested but want to see

someone else try it first.

But those demographics may change if the National Security Agency carries

through next month with its intention to ask companies to submit bids for

a multibillion-dollar IT outsourcing contract named Project Groundbreaker.

Most federal IT managers would not have chosen NSA as a likely candidate

for outsourcing operational information systems. Intelligence agencies tend

to have an insular approach to IT, and NSA is not known for its openness.

Indeed, the agency is not outsourcing any of the systems that manage classified

information.

Nevertheless, Project Groundbreaker demonstrates just how grim the IT

infrastructure is at the agency and the lengths that it — and other agencies

— must go to if they are to keep up with the breakneck pace of technology

developments in the private sector.

Under the contract, an outside vendor would take over the ownership

and management of NSA's internal systems, including telephony, desktop computers,

networks and IT security. NSA's director, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden,

believes the agency must outsource its systems, which were assembled during

the Cold War, to keep up with the technology that its new intelligence targets

have.

Hayden is right. Not only does NSA have a hopelessly outdated system, but

the agency faces a tight IT labor pool in which the government has a distinct

disadvantage when competing with the private sector. Those two factors put

the agency in a difficult situation in which to buy and manage its IT resources.

Hayden doesn't have much choice.

Neither do many other agencies. Feds may not like the option of outsourcing

IT, but given the fact that most agencies' responsibilities are vital to

national security — and the economy — relying on agency systems that are

inferior to what most Fortune 500 companies have is untenable. Outsourcing,

until another viable option presents itself, offers the best course and

one that most agencies must at least consider.

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