Networx: A look at its origins

The government has undertaken three major telecom transitions, columnist Bob Woods writes, and there are important lessons to be learned from each of them.

Bob Woods is president of Topside Consulting Group and former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service.

If you have ever volunteered to oversee a transition of your network infrastructure, you are (1) dumber than a bag of hammers, (2) lacking excitement in your life or (3) know someone who has embarrassing photos of you. When I volunteered to move the Department of Veterans Affairs from Sprint to AT&T in the 1990s as part of the FTS 2000 process, I am not sure which of those conditions was the most influential.

The current transition of federal agencies from the FTS 2001 contracts awarded in the late 1990s to the Networx contracts awarded in the mid-2000s is more difficult than the move I oversaw, even though it is the government’s third major transition of network services infrastructure.

The first major transition — from the Federal Telephone System to the commercially based FTS 2000 contracts awarded in 1988 — was in essence a government-to-industry conversion. The government was moving to a commercially based set of services, but it owned the incumbent infrastructure and organization. The transition was difficult, but agencies controlled the variables.

When the government moved from FTS 2000 with AT&T and Sprint as the providers to FTS 2001 with MCI and Sprint as the providers, the new contractors were offering services with updated technologies and architectures, but it was basically a like-for-like swap. There were a few challenges, but the transition got done and agencies garnered significant savings.

The transition to Networx is also an industry-to-industry transition, but it has been slower and less effective, and fewer savings have been realized. Why is that?

For one thing, the latest transition is not a like-for-like transfer. Networx seeks to maximize flexibility, savings and new technology. In other words, it looks much different from its predecessor, FTS 2001. It is similar to replacing a fleet of Fords with Hummers — not the vehicles agencies are used to operating and maintaining.

To add to the Networx woes, agencies did not have the necessary, technologically up-to-date employees in place to manage the transition and function in the new environment. Additionally, the General Services Administration’s decision to leave each agency to do its own contracting for technical support further delayed the process.

It has been more than five years since the Networx contracts were awarded. By my calculations, the glacial pace of the transition has cost the government in excess of $1 billion in savings that could have been achieved from lower rates. Although no transition happens immediately, those that drag on through most of the contracts’ term are losers for agencies and taxpayers.

So what do these three transitions tell us?

First, transitions should not be taken lightly by those who lack the expertise to execute them. Second, the talent and expertise to conduct transitions must be in place and ready to go the day the new contracts are awarded.

In other words, transitions should be simpler, better planned, and supported by technically capable and dedicated staff. Because the goal is overall dollar savings, spending months or years to wring out the last few pennies of savings is a mistake. Get the bulk of the savings early, and refine your approach and management at a later stage.

When I oversaw VA’s move from Sprint to AT&T, we planned and executed the transition with the support of our staff and those of the companies involved. I was fortunate not to have to go through another transition at a major agency. My IQ did improve in the process, however.

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