Trail Boss may find greener pastures

A group of government and industry officials who have fond memories of the General Services Administration's Trail Boss program is trying to breathe new life into it. The group, Trail Boss New Horizons, wants to resurrect the education and networking program, which GSA created in the late 1980s and ended in 1999.

There will be differences, though. GSA started Trail Boss to offer two-week training courses to contracting officials responsible for the procurement, deployment and management of information technology systems. An interagency committee planned an annual meeting of program graduates, called Trail Boss Roundup, and many people who had been through the program stayed in touch through an e-mail list. That group last met in 2000, one year after the program's formal dissolution.

The new effort seeks to resurrect the networking and information-sharing aspects of the old program, said organizer Dennis Szymanski, who is about to become deputy chief information officer at the U.S. International Trade Commission. GSA has pledged to help update the e-mail list with current contact information for the program's alumni, but otherwise will not be involved, at least not immediately, he said.

Szymanski, who is senior adviser to the chief of IT services at the Internal Revenue Service, graduated from his Trail Boss class in 1994 and stayed active within the graduates' network. He served as chairman of the interagency committee in 1999 and 2000.

Without GSA's backing, the group will need a healthy dose of true grit, Szymanski said. Planning events after the agency formally ended the program was difficult. "I had a full-time job with the IRS, others have their jobs," he said. GSA "did the lion's share of the real hard work in planning the meeting. We would set the agenda."

About 1,300 U.S. and Canadian government IT professionals took part in the old Trail Boss program. Right now, a 20-person working group is all that makes up New Horizons. The group plans to formally announce its launch in April at the FOSE trade show in Washington, D.C.

The working group has not yet defined what the new organization would be. Szymanski said it would continue the networking and information-sharing aspects of the old initiative, but the form that it will take hasn't been determined.

"We haven't nailed that down yet," he said. "We are planning on having an annual meeting later this year. We don't have a date or location yet, but it's in the works."

In many ways, the networking and information-sharing aspects of the original Trail Boss mattered most, he added.

"What you had in that original program was people who were experienced in the management of large systems and the acquisition and deployment of large systems," he said. "As people moved on in their careers, they still had an opportunity...to talk to people who had had the same experiences."

But the world that created the original Trail Boss program has changed dramatically, procurement experts say. Then, GSA was under a mandate to oversee all federal IT purchases. The educational programs allowed GSA to delegate that authority to trained agency leaders. The legislation giving GSA that mandate, the Brooks Act, was repealed in 1996.

"In today's environment, it's a lot easier to get a contract," perhaps making a program like Trail Boss less relevant to agency procurement officials, said consultant John Okay, who served as deputy commissioner of GSA's Federal Technology Service from 1995 to 1997. Project management, however, remains a crucial element of a successful IT deployment, he added.

"I don't know that reincarnating it would be a bad idea, but the environment's changed a little bit," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. "The Trail Boss program was extremely good at providing training to people who would go to manage IT projects in their own agencies. Now you have agency CIOs who are supposed to be charged with a lot of this. And you don't have the Brooks Act." n

on the road again The General Services Administration started Trail Boss to help agency contracting officials understand the ins and outs of federal procurement, specifically how to manage indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts. GSA ended the program in 1999 as procurement reform took hold. In its place, GSA launched the Strategic and Tactical Advocates for Results program, a broader educational program designed to give senior agency managers a grounding in project and program management skills in technology, business and finance.

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