The way reform should work

Last month's decision by top information technology managers at the General Services Administration to kill its desktop outsourcing contract illustrates two important elements of the government's post-procurement-reform era. First, the idea of seat management — that is, turning over ownership of hardware, software and support services to an outside vendor — would have been a hard sell under the pre-reform procurement rules. The innovative concept promised to make it easier to standardize and consolidate networks and share information. But the tight procurement rules and red tape of yesteryear would have made any chance to experiment with a new idea difficult.

Second, and maybe more important, is the fact that GSA decided to pull the plug on the task order less than three years after it was signed. Not only was procurement reform supposed to free agencies to try new buying strategies, but it was also supposed to provide the freedom to kill a program when it was clear the contract was not working.

Stories abound about how agencies spent years, and billions of dollars in some cases, trying to make doomed contracts work and then only grudgingly gave up when Congress stepped in. To be sure, the decision by Mike Carleton, GSA chief information officer, and other GSA IT folks to kill the task order as of December was a tough one — especially because the agency, under different leadership, had been the seat management cheerleader. But top management, acting as procurement reformers hoped they would, realized the shortcomings and decided not to spend more money on a task order that wasn't working. That's leadership.

Exactly what impact GSA's decision will have on the future of seat management is not yet clear. GSA managers ask other agencies to learn from the agency's mistakes and consider such factors as existing management policies, obtaining employee buy-in and setting service- level agreements before awarding a contract. GSA, unwittingly, may have showed agencies another vital lesson: how to assess a problem and act accordingly despite any short-term embarrassment.

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