Policy home runs

In FCW’s first two decades, six statutory changes transformed the IT playing field

Many people remember — and not so fondly — the days when the General
Services Administration wielded almost absolute control of federal information technology procurement.

The Brooks Act of 1965 instituted a procurement regime that would go virtually untouched for more than 30 years until it was officially toppled by the IT Management Reform Act of 1996, better known as the Clinger-Cohen Act.

Along the way, other statutes fundamentally altered the government technology community, including the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA), the E-Government Act and others.

“Most people have forgotten what it was like to live under the Brooks Act,” said Anne Reed, former chief information officer at the Agriculture Department and now president of Acquisition Solutions. “It was far more cumbersome, and agencies had far less authority. IT procurement was so centralized that the people making the purchasing decisions had almost no connection to an agency’s mission.”

A variety of experts say the procurement landscape is different now. Agency CIOs and others responsible for multimillionor billion-dollar purchases call most of the shots at a time in which accountability measures have never been stronger. Policy experts agree that six major initiatives — laws, policies and regulations — transformed IT procurement in the past 20 years.

1. The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 created CIOs and invited them into the executive suite

Clinger-Cohen touched nearly every aspect of procuring and managing IT. It provided authorization for CIO positions in every major federal agency. Federal CIOs were empowered to revamp IT departments, many of which had historically performed little more than clerical functions. Clinger-Cohen “took IT out of the backroom and into the boardroom,” Reed said.

Although the Defense Department and several other agencies at the time recognized IT as a powerful business tool, Clinger-Cohen institutionalized
that idea. It codified good business practices such as process re-engineering, performance measurement and business case analysis, said John Grimes, assistant secretary of Defense for networks and information integration and the department’s CIO. “The law rendered information management a businesslike activity,” he said.

Clinger-Cohen also paved the way for governmentwide acquisition contracts, the now-popular megaprocurements that individual agencies manage on behalf of all federal buyers. NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the Commerce Department and others offered GWACs that made it easy for other agencies to buy commercial IT products.

“Clinger-Cohen really gave IT procurement back to the agencies,” said Althea Kireilis, director of GSA’s Office of Acquisition Policy.

GWACs and other Clinger-Cohen provisions left GSA less than the procurement powerhouse it had been. But the agency managed to adapt to the changing landscape, Kireilis said.

"It made GSA refocus how we did things," she said. "In my opinion, this made both GSA and the agencies more successful. Agencies are better able to manage their own missions, but they come to GSA when they need expertise."

2. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 helped focus agencies’ attention on the tangible benefits of IT

Clinger-Cohen signaled the official end of the Brooks era, but three years earlier, another statute initiated profound changes in the federal IT community.

“GPRA’s simple mandate that all technology purchases must have a business purpose that supports an agency’s mission was a turning point,” said Robert Guerra, a partner at Guerra Kiviat, a consulting firm.

“With GPRA, government became more focused on measurable results,”Guerra said. However, the full realization of GPRA has not yet occurred, he added. “I’m not sure we’ve come as far as we can in deploying contracts that actually do meet the mission needs of agencies.”

3. The Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 gave agencies a green light to buy IT sold in the commercial marketplace

A year after GPRA was enacted, lawmakers passed FASA, legislation that loosened restrictions preventing federal agencies from buying commercially available technology. Some pundits suggest that FASA’s greatest legacy was to put an end to tired jokes about the government’s procurement ineptitude.

According to analysis at the time by the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office), FASA had an immediate effect on the acquisition of $200 billion in goods and services by eliminating many restrictions and accounting requirements that drove up the price.

“Not only did these government unique procedures increase the cost of procurements, they acted as a deterrent to contractors entering the government market,” said John Ford, a senior consultant at the accounting firm Cherry Bekaert and Holland. “This had the effect of limiting competition.”

FASA established a preference for the acquisition of commercial items, Ford said. Its purpose was to ensure that the federal government could buy the most innovative products and services available.  It did so by expanding the definition of commercial items to include products in development that companies have not yet sold in the commercial market.

4. The E-Government Act of 2002 brought government closer to the people by requiring federal agencies to use the Internet to disseminate information and conduct official transactions

Changes ushered in by GPRA, FASA and Clinger-Cohen affected government users and technology purchasers. They also set the stage for a new public-oriented law, the E-Government Act of 2002, with its provisions for making federal services and resources easily accessible to Internetconnected citizens.

“People expected the government to take advantage of the Internet revolution to provide better and easier access to information,” said Bruce Hassett, an account executive at Senforce, a wireless security company that sells to the government.“The e-government program jump-started that
process and set the agenda. The federal government was going to aggressively pursue IT to the citizen’s advantage.”

5. The Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 required
agencies to make information security a primary consideration in buying and managing IT

Cradled within the E-Government Act, FISMA required agencies to develop information security plans, taking into account their agency’s interaction with other agencies and outside contractors.

FISMA had a profound impact on agency procurements, said Hord Tipton, the Interior Department’s departing CIO. “It changed the way we write contracts,” he said. “If we procure a service of any type that impacts federal data, contracting language requires vendors to provide third-party certification of their systems.”

After FISMA’s passage, agencies increased their IT security spending dramatically, Tipton said. In 2001, for example, agencies typically spent $3 million to $4 million a year on IT security. Today, $50 million is the norm. Even with that increase, however, most agencies still do not comply with all of FISMA’s requirements, he added. “And the bar keeps rising.”

6. The Rehabilitation Act Amendments of 1998 brought the productivity benefits of IT to people with disabilities

In 1998, Congress passed legislation strengthening Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, making it easier for people with disabilities to use computers, Web sites and other information technologies.

Besides protecting government workers with disabilities, Section 508 requirements produced a widespread ripple. “I suspect that if government had not taken a lead on this, accessibility would not have become so important to industry,”Reed said. “That would have meant that many, many people would have been left out of the game, and that would have been a huge tragedy.”

Without 508, she added, it might have taken much longer for the economics of accessible technology to create changes in the industry.

Those six pivotal pieces of legislation that changed government IT did not operate in isolation. From opening the doors of government with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act of 1996 to revamping warfare technology with the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review, the legislative and policy changes have been earnest and far-reaching.

McAdams is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.


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