Ten years after

The red tape created by now- defunct procurement regulations and laws seems as antiquated as typewriter ribbons, both belonging to an era regretted by no one who saw best plans hopelessly entangled. It seems long ago now, but in reality, agencies are still in the early days of learning how to take advantage of a new generation of rules and the freedom they provide.

The Defense Message System, a relic of that past, is an unfortunate reminder of why government got rid of the red tape. DMS, a Pentagon program to design, build and deploy a new secure electronic messaging system, made its first appearance in FCW on Nov. 5, 1990. That was in an era when contractors had to follow strict rules about what and how they bought IT equipment and systems.

Agencies typically built large information systems from scratch. If they used off-the-shelf technology at all, they would require vendors to make substantial changes to it, generally defeating the purpose of using commercial technology. Agencies also preferred to develop "grand design" systems, a one-size-fits-all approach that forced everyone to use the system no matter their differing requirements.

DMS offers a good lesson about what those rules and business practices wrought. The system's first requirements, which included secure messaging from desktop to desktop for all of the more than 2 million military service members and civilian employees, have not been met. Technological shortcomings, delays that are counted by years and cost overruns have hobbled the project.

Despite the problems, DOD has pushed ahead and is now in a position where, even with the shortcomings, the military services will be forced to use the system. Some remain optimistic that the system will work in the long run.

But agencies need only look at DMS as a reminder of why procurement rules and IT management reforms were necessary in the first place. Greater use of commercial products with little or no alterations, breaking larger projects into smaller units to reduce the risk and not forcing users into a one-size-fits-all solution are just a few of the changes that have been made.

Procurement reform is by no means perfect, but, as DMS has shown, dealing with the quirks of the new rules is better than getting snarled in the red tape.

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