Davis and the unfinished revolution
- By Judi Hasson
- Apr 21, 2003
When Rep. Tom Davis first got elected to Congress, he knew more about how the government purchased goods and services than most of the federal workers who used them, having been vice president of a high-tech company as well as chairman of the board of supervisors for Fairfax County, Va., home to many government contractors.
Unlike his colleagues looking for glamorous issues to make their own, Davis (R-Va.) determined that procurement was his calling. That decision has paid off.
Although he was not near the top of the seniority list, Davis convinced House leaders this year to make him chairman of the full Government Reform Committee, where he will have an even bigger impact molding government for the 21st century.
As chairman, he has a unique opportunity to combine his nuts-and-bolts view of government with a formidable bully pulpit. It's an opportunity he does not intend to miss. Davis has a big agenda and, according to those who know him well, the drive to get it done.
His top priorities this year include a sweeping overhaul of procurement policies, picking up where he left off during his recent tenure as chairman of the Government Reform Committee's Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee.
He is also intent on restructuring civil service by looking for ways to improve how government agencies hire and retain staff. And he is seeking to restore the president's ability to make changes to the executive branch's organization chart without the delay and discord that held up the Homeland Security Department's (DHS) creation.
"If Tom makes a real dent on a quarter of the issues he has taken up, that will be a contribution of historic proportions," said Steve Kelman, professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
Davis knows he is taking on a tough job.
Government is always the last to change because it "doesn't have the pressure to get more out of less," he told Federal Computer Week in an interview earlier this month. "We have a digital economy and an analog government," and that must end.
Davis is not one to shirk a task just because it's hard. During the mid-1990s, he worked to bring fiscal soundness to the nation's capital as chairman of the Government Reform Committee's District of Columbia Subcommittee, an assignment most lawmakers avoid because it's low profile and low impact.
Davis saw it differently. He argued that the city's financial health was important for the entire region, including his own district, and should be revitalized, not neglected.
Davis also has worked to modernize the civil service system. He developed pay incentives to attract and keep good workers and provided them with new training opportunities so they can keep their job skills up-to-date. And with his fund-raising prowess, Davis became a rising star on Capitol Hill and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, raising $150 million for Republican Party candidates.
Now government is facing the challenge of paying for the war in Iraq and security at home with deficit budgets and diminishing resources. And Davis is not afraid to support innovative approaches to information technology procurement, such as managed services and share-in-savings, in which contractors are paid in part from savings realized from IT projects.
"Tom Davis is a person who is really standing at the top of the mountain," said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. "He has the clearest vision of anyone in Congress and the executive branch about what...streamlined government acquisition means to overall government efficiency."
One of Davis' biggest objectives is reintroducing the Services Acquisition Reform Act (SARA), which would change purchasing habits governmentwide.
The legislation is expected to tackle the major problems plaguing government acquisition today. It will make it easier for agencies to collaborate on acquisitions, and it will provide incentives and tools to attract the best companies to do business with the government.
The legislation also will provide up-to-date, comprehensive training for federal workers through such programs as the Digital Tech Corps, a provision of the E-Government Act of 2002 that allows federal workers to spend up to two years at a private company learning how the private sector works.
The legislation also will require a chief acquisition officer at every federal agency and will push for more performance-based contracting and share-in-savings contracts.
"SARA will allow the government to put the tools needed to access commercial services and technologies...in the hands of a trained workforce that will have the discretion necessary to choose the best value for the government and be held accountable for those choices," said David Marin, Davis' spokesman.
Although SARA failed to pass Congress last year, Davis managed to add several elements of it to the E-Government Act, including a share-in-savings provision.
He plans to take a similar approach this time around, attaching SARA to quicker-moving legislation in the House and striking a similar deal to push it through the Senate. "We are going to have to make some compromises to get there," Davis said.
He plans to reintroduce the act this month or next. The details are still being worked out, but Marin said it is about "better training, better accountability, better contracting tools."
It's ambitious legislation and not without its critics. With new rules comes the potential for new abuses, which is a cause for concern in some camps.
Beth Daley, director of communication and development for the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog group, said Davis' SARA legislation would "allow industry to rip off the federal government." Although Marin said that is not the case, Daley contends that SARA will eliminate oversight protections that have kept companies in line.
Davis is courting even more controversy in the area of civil service reform. He wants to change how the government manages its workforce without hurting federal workers, particularly those in his Northern Virginia district.
It's often difficult to strike a balance between giving federal agencies more flexibility and protecting federal workers' rights. But as the government faces the possibility of seeing half of its employees retire in the next five years, innovation is the necessary response, according to Davis.
Many workers, he said, are willing to take lower salaries in exchange for training. Others, who put in long days and even weekends to get the job done, are tired of getting the same pay as the co-worker who leaves on time and never works overtime. They're looking for new incentives to stay on the government's payroll, he said.
That was the motivation behind the Digital Tech Corps, which gives federal workers a chance to switch jobs with their private-sector counterparts for up to two years.
But federal employees unions are watching carefully. Although they give Davis high marks for always listening and trying to reach a compromise, they fear that the Republican White House and Congress will try to gut civil service protections across the board and extend the workplace flexibilities that are already in the legislation that created DHS.
Federal unions don't want to lose bargaining rights for workers, especially if more government work is outsourced. They also fear that DHS officials, whom Bush gave great flexibility in hiring and transferring federal workers, will establish new pay scales, performance evaluations and disciplinary rules outside the boundaries of traditional union contracts.
"If Chairman Davis decides that major things need to change...it would be a disaster for agencies and the taxpayers that depend on [federal] agencies," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which has more than 150,000 members.
Bobby Harnage, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, said he's confident Davis will protect federal workers.
"I think we can work with him," he said. "We certainly are going to try. In the past, he's been supportive of pay parity and pay increases. I don't think he's going to be trying to dismantle civil service."
Harnage said he is more concerned about Digital Tech Corps, which would allow private-sector employees to work in government and gain the advantage of knowing what government wants and how it works.
"It goes too far and too deep, and it allows corporations to come into the federal sector, something they wouldn't allow in the private sector, get our trade secrets, then go back and bid on jobs," Harnage said.
Davis usually favors change over inertia. "Chairman Davis has an ambitious legislative agenda, and he plans to make substantial changes in every aspect of how the government does business, how it is organized and how procurements can be streamlined," said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division.
"If anyone can pull this off, Chairman Davis can," she said. "He wants to use his chairmanship to help enact reforms that he has only talked about in the past."
A Dream Team
But he cannot do it alone. Davis has built a staff of subject-matter experts to craft policies and legislation. They include experts in outsourcing, telecommuting, acquisition, procurement and management.
"I'm not a great idea thinker," Davis said. "People come to me with ideas.... I can take an idea and translate it."
Not so, according to his staff, who argue that Davis is the visionary behind the operation. As a former procurement lawyer, he learned the hard way how long it takes and how expensive it can be to challenge contract awards.
As the former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, which has the second largest county budget in the country, he saw firsthand how government wastes money. He once discovered 300 police cars sitting in a parking lot with their batteries unplugged because the county bought too many, didn't need them and couldn't find a way to get rid of them.
There is no hubris in Davis, colleagues say. His staff calls him by his first name, and they feel comfortable correcting him even in front of a reporter.
"I work for a member of Congress and with a staff that grasps IT and procurement issues to the fourth decimal point," Marin said. "This is not an ego-driven bunch. We share a commitment to good government, to rooting out waste in government, to making government more user-friendly. And we think we're in the right place to make all this happen."
Outsiders also notice that Davis' team is cohesive. "He doesn't terrorize his staff," Kelman said. "What I see is a relationship that is very much at ease. There's hard work and a lot of laughter."
Melissa Wojciak, deputy staff director of the Government Reform Committee who has worked with Davis for seven years, agrees. "It's really exciting to work for someone who gets things done, who picks up the threads of any topic and sees where you need to take it a hundred yards down," she said.
Davis' style also works well with his fellow lawmakers. Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Davis has no trouble building bipartisan alliances, and Republicans "owe him big time" for all the money he raised for their campaigns.
"If it's something he wants, he'll get it," Ornstein said. "He's going to have people who normally don't listen, listen."