E-gov's point man

Rep. Tom Davis has plans to reform electronic government. Can he deliver?

When term limits imposed by the House Republicans kept Rep. Tom Davis from continuing as chairman of the subcommittee he had led for six years, the party leadership created a new post for him — heading up the closest thing the House has to an e-government subcommittee.

It seemed a good fit. Davis, a former high-tech executive from a district full of technology companies, became chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's new Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee.

Barely a month into the job, however, the Northern Virginia Republican is predicting defeat for his principal piece of e-government legislation— a bill to create a federal technology czar.

The Office of Management and Budget opposes it, and President Bush probably wouldn't sign it, Davis said during an interview March 5 with reporters and editors from Federal Computer Week. Instead of battling the White House,Davis said he plans to focus his subcommittee's work on procurement reform,which he said is is inextricably linked to e-gov. After all, he said, his 15 years in the corporate world include time as a "procurement attorney."

How the government buys billions of dollars' worth of goods and services each year is "a small niche in government that not a lot of members have paid a lot of attention to through time, and we have a lot of ideas," he said.

It's not that Davis doesn't appreciate the potential benefits of e-government.He's quick to compare the convenience of the private sector's automated teller machines and credit card-operated gasoline pumps with the clunkiness of government. "When you think of government, what do you think about? You think of chads," he said.

But so far under the Bush administration, prospects for much progress in e-government seem dim, starting with Davis' own legislation, the Federal Information Policy Act.

It would create a Cabinet-level Office of Information Policy headed by a federal chief information officer. The CIO would take over technology management responsibilities now assigned to OMB.

The idea "makes a ton of sense," Davis said. "You need to work enterprise wide,across a lot of platforms, with someone who understands that, as opposed to just doing it agency by agency."

As procurement stands today, agencies struggle alone with their individual technology projects, often developing systems incapable of communicating with one another and sometimes failing to meet basic requirements.

Davis cites the Agency for International Development, "where they went through a major procurement; it wasn't even Y2K-compliant." A federal technology czar would step in to prevent such a thing. "He'll have input into every major decision. Government ought to be asking every time we do something how this fits in with the information revolution."

But Davis figures there is virtually no chance his bill will become law. The problem is the "turf fight whenever you create a new Cabinet-level position and you're taking it away from someone else's power. That's what we're dealing with here," Davis said.

Duties to oversee government IT, to the extent they now exist, have been assigned to OMB's deputy director for management. So far, the Bush administration indicates it intends to follow that pattern.

"The problem with putting it in OMB, which is basically what the administration wants to do, is that the Office of Management and Budget is really the Office of Budget," Davis said. "When you take a look at what they do, it's a budget office. It's a very important budget office. It's critical. But the management side gets left out in many cases."

OMB is incapable of the kind of enterprise wide oversight information technology needs, Davis said.

As long as IT oversight remains an OMB responsibility, "they're going to continue to look at it agency by agency because that's the way they report.That's the way they're set up. That's the way their experts are lined up to understand what each agency is doing, what equipment, what software each agency is using, and nobody's looking at the big picture," Davis said.

But the fact that OMB is fighting efforts to create an independent IT czar does not surprise Davis — it happens "anytime you try to diminish power in a bureaucracy," he said.

"We've laid down our marker, and we're going to open discussions with the administration on this, and we'll see how it evolves," he said. "But the idea of a subcommittee chairman in the House, jamming the administration with an IT czar, is just probably not going to happen."

Still, Davis and the Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee should keep busy with procurement reform.

Before he came to Congress, he was a self-described "procurement attorney"for a company called Advanced Technology and later vice president of PRC Inc., a technology company that dealt extensively with the federal government.

That experience made Davis an expert in such procurement trivia as General Services Administration "group 70 schedules," share-in-savings contracts and outsourcing.

"We spend too much time in federal procurement doing too many other things than trying to get the best value for the lowest cost," Davis declared.

But he and his staff hope to change that. "We've got a lot of ideas.One of our favorites is allowing the GSA schedules and some of the federal schedules to be put out to the state and local governments," he said.

Also known as "cooperative purchasing," the concept was proposed and killed in 1993, but Davis said he plans to revive it this year. By limiting its use to IT items, Davis hopes to limit opposition to it.

Drug companies successfully fought cooperative purchasing eight years ago, but "they've got their hands full" battling price control legislation and may be willing to waive their opposition to cooperative purchasing now,Davis said.

If passed, cooperative purchasing would enable states to buy computers and other IT at discounted prices through GSA.

The time also seems ripe for greater use of share-in-savings contracts,Davis said. Under such contracts, companies doing business with the government make much or all of their money from savings they wring out of the projects they undertake.

The Defense Department has had some success with share-in-savings contracts,and other agencies are considering them. "We'll see how the private sector feels about it," Davis said.

Outsourcing is also on the Technology and Procurement Policy agenda,but this time, philosophical arguments over whether work is "inherently governmental" and should be done by government employees may matter less.

In many instances, "we don't have the in-house capability," Davis said.Low government pay and a high rate of retirements are quickly thinning the ranks of government IT workers. "We aren't going to build the in-house capability overnight. The expertise is out there in the private sector," Davis said.Thus, more outsourcing seems unavoidable.

The labor shortage may render irrelevant legislation such as the Truthfulness,Responsibility and Accountability in Contracting Act. TRAC is intended to discourage outsourcing by forcing federal agencies to produce detailed analysis of savings before turning work over to contractors.

NEXT STORY: Lieberman drafts e-gov bill

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