Letters to the editor

'NMCI Is About Control'

As a former Defense Department employee, I've been watching the Navy Marine Corps Intranet progress with interest. The program has progressed as anticipated.

Before NMCI, the Navy local-area network infrastructure was decentralized. Government employees and contractors worked for the base commander. The result was innovative but diverse products (according to reports, more than 30,000 local applications).

The Navy decided to centralize and standardize. Getting control of the information technology staff at all Navy bases would have been a high-risk process, requiring significant cultural change. The local IT resource staff members would have resisted the change and, in many cases, would have been supported by their base commanders. Changing the chain of command is difficult in a military organization, particularly when reporting to someone other than the local senior officer. Organization charts are not relevant if the local commander invites a government IT official to his office and issues a "request."

The Navy addressed the control issue by establishing a large, centrally managed contract. The program office, not the base commander, controls the contractor. The contractor is loyal to the program office rather than the local chain of command. The resistance that is occurring is caused by the shift from decentralization to centralization.

Will NMCI save money? Yes, but any centralization/ standardization effort would. Will the service that is provided to the Navy be improved? Not necessarily. Overall, government technicians are usually as talented as contractor personnel. The base commander will find that they will not be able to implement "new applications" as they could in the past.

NMCI is about control. Rather than attempt to take control of the existing field IT personnel and the implied cultural changes, it was easier to build a new reporting structure via contractors. Contracting out has more to do with control issues than with cost savings.

Edward Troup

Agriculture Department

Following is a response to an FCW.com poll question that asked: Should government outsource more IT services?

Outsourcing, With Care

This is more complicated than a yes-or-no answer can address. In general, the answer is yes, so that's how I voted.

I manage a government IT area, have outsourced the work for more than 25 years, and that has gone well. The arguments in favor of outsourcing are:

n Technology changes rapidly and the skills required change with it. Government IT staff members seldom/ never get adequate training to keep up with the technology, as there's never enough training money.

n When technology changes, we can change the makeup of the contractor staff expertise to keep up with the needs a lot easier than with government staff. How can you replace a fed when he or she is doing a good job but his or her skills are no longer needed?

n If a person isn't doing the job well, it's much easier to replace a contractor than a fed.

On the other hand, I'm leery about the government getting carried away with IT outsourcing — and from what I've seen, this is beginning to happen. I think it needs to be done carefully and keeping the following in mind:

n You must retain core government IT staff to manage the outsourced staff, direct the activities, and decide on the direction and technology to use. Government managers generally have a weak knowledge of technology and would not be able to provide good IT management. They would not be able to determine if the contractor was giving them good advice or not. Plus, most government managers are much too busy to devote adequate time to managing IT, and far too many are poor people managers in any event. As an aside, the biggest negative change I've see in nearly 30 years in the government is the degradation in quality of mid- and upper-level government managers when it comes to actually managing staff. People aren't being trained well to be managers and leaders, and are chosen for management positions for the wrong reasons.

n For continuity, you must have the core government IT staff, and it shouldn't be just one person. Although contractor staff can and will stay a long time in a good environment — often moving to the replacement contractor under a new contract — you can't count on this. Government IT staff must provide the needed continuity.

n The people on the bandwagon say the government will save a lot of money by outsourcing. I can almost guarantee it won't. You have to pay for quality IT staff, and it doesn't matter whom they work for. In my view, costs are just about the least important factor in an outsourcing decision.

Gary Bell

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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