Convincing Congress

The chaotic fiscal 2004 appropriations activities are winding down with many loose ends remaining. But already one can see clear signs that Congress has a limited understanding that agencies need to move aggressively in fielding information technology to meet mission requirements.

Consider these four examples of what Congress has done:

n An undersecretary in the Defense Department was given line responsibility for major National Security Agency IT programs, including the multibillion-dollar Trailblazer and Groundbreaker programs.

n Outsourcing, including IT outsourcing, is subject to a patchwork of restrictions and process controls, designed to slow the Bush administration's initiative.

n The Office of Management and Budget's e-government fund received only $3 million of the $45 million requested.

n The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) got the last-minute go-ahead for $35 million for its electronic records program, narrowly missing a diversion of the funds to Amtrak.

Although the federal IT market will continue to grow at a pace of 5 percent to 7 percent a year, it is not the market that many companies have been expecting or one that shows a deep understanding of IT's potential strategic value.

Some lawmakers do understand the need for strong agency technology programs. They include Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), chairman of its Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census Subcommittee.

While Davis continues his longtime championing of the IT industry, Putnam's subcommittee has increased the visibility of government IT. It has taken its oversight role seriously — for example, working with NARA to make sure the electronic records program is successful.

The committee and its predecessors have a long history of involvement in federal IT. Many in our community remember Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Texas), who ruled IT acquisition with an iron hand for three decades until he left Congress in the mid-1990s.

The support of a strong oversight committee in the House is only one element of a strategy. A longer-term effort must be made to increase the understanding and awareness of all members of Congress and, in particular, those who are influential in the appropriations process.

There are many obstacles to overcome. Two are worthy of particular mention. First, Congress is not deaf to the increasingly popular argument that "IT doesn't matter." Second, it is difficult to make a connection between federal IT spending and creating jobs in a lawmaker's district. That only makes it a more difficult sell.

These challenges are only more reasons why we in industry need to be sure to make our voices heard in 2004.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www.mcconnellinternational.com).

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