Linking spending and logic

The business of government — how government manages itself — is not typically headline-grabbing stuff. Therefore, it does not top the agendas on Capitol Hill, often leaving the area devoid of leadership and ideas. But Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who has spent years studying the arcane world of procurement, has proposed legislation that could start to bring more logic to the tens of billions of dollars the government spends on information technology every year.

Davis plans to introduce legislation that would create an acquisition chief position at every agency to bring order to IT purchases. The chief acquisition officer, so to speak, would try to look across the entire agency to find opportunities to capitalize on IT buys that could save millions of dollars. He or she would also work to ensure that purchases promote interoperability among agency networks and with other agencies.

At first glance, many may view the proposal as adding another layer of management on an already top-heavy bureaucracy. But Davis' vision of the acquisition chief is similar to the Defense Department's undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Such a position helps bring as much order to DOD IT buys as possible, and for organizations as large and dispersed as most government agencies are, such a position is not only advantageous but necessary.

IT acquisition will only become more complicated and require more discipline and oversight in the coming years. As the federal IT workforce dwindles, agencies will be forced to outsource more functions, and that approach could quickly become unwieldy for agencies and hurt operations.

Managing this transition will require savvy business skills that are in short supply in government. The acquisition officer could oversee such a transition and work to develop logical agencywide plan and policies.

The only possible pitfall in Davis' proposal lies in making the officer a political appointee. Acquisition chiefs need the right skills and they must remain in the job long enough to learn an agency's business, the problems it faces and how to fix them. Political appointees may not offer the best way to accomplish those goals. But the simple fact that Davis is attempting to bring order to what is now a hodgepodge acquisition system is a good sign.

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