In Memoriam

The Brooks Legacy: Remembering the man who changed federal IT

Frank McDonough 180

Although it seems unlikely in the Washington of 2012, change can occur when one powerful individual like the late congressman Jack Brooks has a personal vision and is able to focus energy on it for many years. The Brooks Act was born in the mid-1960s, in the dark of night, in a deal between Brooks and President Lyndon Johnson, both of Texas. Once signed into law in 1972, the act was managed by the General Services Administration and was the primary rule for all federal computer acquisitions for 34 years.

Creating a U.S. computer industry made up of many companies instead of one or a few was the initial purpose of the Brooks Act. In the early days of the industry, the federal government was by far the most active buyer of computers in the country, and IBM was the dominant supplier. If the government had made all its purchases from IBM, as many agency officials wanted, there would have been very little opportunity for any competing providers to emerge.

IBM’s competition included several companies then called “the dwarfs.” The group included Burroughs, Control Data, General Electric, Honeywell, National Cash Register and Univac, now called Unisys. Given a chance under the Brooks Act, those firms were able to emerge and grow. IBM, meanwhile, adjusted to the new procurement rules and enjoyed continued success.

Thirty years after the government enacted the Brooks Act, I attended a Christmas party with Unisys and former Univac employees at their annual gathering to remember the good old days. Bob Beardall, a longtime Unisys employee, looked out over the room filled with his friends and former colleagues and said, “They owe a lot to Jack Brooks.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“These guys were given an opportunity to sell to the government. The Brooks Act forced agencies to look at all suppliers, and Univac won its share,” Bob said. “As a result, these guys bought houses, raised families and sent kids to college because of the opportunities delivered by the Brooks Act.”

While industry generally liked the Brooks Act, agencies did not, especially because they were required to obtain a delegation of procurement authority from GSA. But the law has spurred innovation in both industry and government.

And the Brooks Act was not Brooks’ only influence on federal procurement. In the mid-1980s, his staff member, Jim Lewin, convinced Brooks that the General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) ruled too frequently in favor of agencies in bid protests. As a result, Brooks introduced the Competition in Contracting Act, authorizing GSA’s administrative law judges to hear bid protests by vendors. That is when the real troubles began because the bid protest process often delayed procurements for as long as 12 months and caused industry officials to become active foes of the Brooks Act and the Competition in Contracting Act. Jack Brooks lost his bid for a 22nd term in 1994 after supporting gun control at the behest of President Bill Clinton. He left office 10 years after authoring the Competition in Contracting Act and more than 30 years after authoring the Brooks Act.

With the fiery Brooks gone from the scene, lawmakers, policy-makers in the Office of Management and Budget, senior officials at federal agencies, and influential members of industry collaborated to scrap both bills and replace them with the Clinger-Cohen Act, which has ruled with mixed results for 16 years. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is one of many unhappy with the current state of procurement and IT management, and he is circulating new legislation to fix the situation.

That would begin the third cycle in almost 50 years of rethinking the procurement and management of major IT systems in the federal government. It might well be time for that, but it's unlikely to be a quick fix. One more lesson from Jack Brooks is that in Washington, important and intelligent people come and go, but to have long-term impact, one must stay for the long term.

About the Author

Consultant Frank A. McDonough is former deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Intergovernmental Solutions.

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