Davis sounds off
Rep. Tom Davis (R.-Va.), chairman of the new House Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, spent more than an hour March 5 answering questions from Federal Computer Week's editors and reporters.
Q. What is your philosophy about e-government?
A. I used this analogy the other day: When you think about the private sector,people think about going to an ATM machine, putting in a card and getting cash out at any hour of the night. When you think of the private sector,that's what you think about. When you think in government, what do you think about? You think of chads.
Somebody said, "You know, you have a digital economy and an analog government."This Information Age is very new to everybody. [The] private sector's going through some trial and error, this market's certainly going through some trial and error. And government is, too, but government traditionally lags behind, and this is a great opportunity to try to give the government the legislative tools it needs to succeed. We're dealing with governmental policies and regulations that in some cases go back 20, 30, 40 years before any of this was envisioned, and we have to change the legal and regulatory structure.
Q. Can you give an example of how e-government should work?
A. Clearly, you want to make more governmental information [and] procurement information [available] online, but the biggest problem in e-government is government talking to government. I'm talking about federal government to state government, federal government to local government.
We met last week, Jim Turner [the subcommittee's ranking Democrat] and myself, with [the governors of Wyoming and Georgia]. They were talking about federal laws and regulations and interpretations from OMB that come down[when states] get federal monies....Basically, the money is so walled off and segmented off that you literally, for the same type of operations, have two computers on your desk that you have to operate from because of the funding levels and the regulatory obligations. And, you know, that's just stupid.
Q. President Bush's budget blueprint was recently released and, though there were a lot of words supporting e-government, there was very little additional money. What do you expect to see in his budget in April?
A. Well, they don't [have] money earmarked to e-government per se, but I think when you look at the different agencies, it doesn't have to be earmarked as e-government money. The Defense Department, the Commerce Department,Health and Human Services in themselves will have e-government initiatives within their budgetary framework that I think can enhance this and don't have to come just as...an e-government line item.
Q. Do you expect more money for information technology?
A. There has to be. Look...one of the largest investments that private companies make today is in technology in electronic-commerce areas. Those are huge investments for the private concerns. They have to be for the federal government as well. And how they're earmarked and how they're evaluated is something that we'll be having a discussion with the administration on over the next two years.
Q. What initiatives do you want to introduce during this legislative session?
A. We've got a lot of ideas. One of our favorites is allowing the GSA schedules and some of the federal schedules to be put out to the state and local governments. This was, of course, cooperative purchasing. This was something that originally was part of the procurement reform bill in 1993,but it was struck before it ever had an opportunity to be operative. We think there's a particular niche for IT and that's what we want to try,to use cooperative purchasing on IT types of components. And we're going to be talking with some of the groups that had held this up before to try to carve [out] their own niche. It's tough, but I think it's the right thing to do. And you found some states are now using their own schedules. It's just a lot more efficient mechanism if state and local and the federal government can work together.
[The] share-in-savings contract is something that I think there's a lot of opportunity for at the federal level. We'll see how the private sector feels about it. But that is an area where I think the government can eliminate its downside, and there can be, of course, a huge upside for some of the contractors. But if we're getting value for no cost, I think that's something we need to look at in terms of some procurements.
Q. You have introduced the cooperative purchasing bill four times in the past with no success. What are the odds of this and other initiatives becoming law?
A. I would say this: The IT industry was divided originally when we tried to do this, and you had companies that had monopolies in some states,and they're afraid of opening up those states to competition. I think as the competition in computers and software and systems integration and all of these things have evolved, you no longer have local firms trying to protect their markets because they're no longer protected. Their marketplace has overwhelmed any kind of provincialism you might have had at one point in terms of purchasing this thing or the other thing.
Q. What are your criteria for deciding which government functions could— or should — be handled by private businesses?
A. These are difficult issues [that] divide my constituency. I have 54,000 federal employees, and I've got at least a like number of contractors.And I've never taken a look that one side's right and one side is wrong,but I think both approaches have been really not in the best interest of the government as a whole. Our criteria ought to be how can we get the best value for the lowest price for the American taxpayer. We spend too much time in federal procurement doing too many other things than trying to get the best value for the lowest cost. And that ends up costing a lot of money.
Q. There's been a lot of discussion about recruiting and retaining the best people for the federal workforce, especially those with information technology skills. What can be done to fix this?
A. I would say as a very general matter that we've got to relook at how we pay very technically qualified people. We've done this — the military's done it for doctors. Look, there have been a lot of efforts to try to bring federal employees' pay up to [match] the outside [companies]. The Federal Employees' Pay Comparability Act, FEPCA, which was passed under [former]President Bush, was waived every year under Bill Clinton, the great friend of federal employees, and they never were able to get anything. We have got to revisit this in some meaningful way for at least some of these technical positions, or government contracting is going to be dictated by who can do the job, and it won't be in government.
Q. What do you see as the future for outsourcing given President Bush's support for the Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act, under which agencies must inventory and outsource functions that are not inherently governmental?
A. I think you don't want to strap yourself where you put such rigidity in how government and the private sector should operate that you can't work to maximum efficiencies.
The pay differentials, the incentives are so different that a lot of this work is going outside of government, not because it's inherently governmental or inherently private sector, but because we don't have the in-house capability to do it in government. And we can't do that because the incentives to stay in government—financial incentives, bonus incentives—are just not there.
We also have a crisis because a lot of our most senior people are due to retire over the next three to four years. When these people go, replacing them with a new cadre of people that will commit their careers to government is going to be very, very difficult under the current incentive programs,in my opinion.