Eras in federal government computing can be defined by the laws that control how the government goes about IT. A “lawless” wild West existed in the early days of what was then called data processing, when a purposed IBM monopoly in hulking mainframes led to the Brooks Act era. The law, named for the legendary Texas congressman Jack Brooks, established the General Services Administration as the chief buyer of DP. Under the Brooks Act agencies had to apply to GSA for delegation of procurement authority to do their own acquisitions. It was cumbersome, and the GSA never really did master its other responsibility for oversight of how well the delegated agencies were carrying out their projects.
Historical detail: Old timers remember that another, earlier Brooks Act overhauled how the government acquires architectural and construction services. GSA take note!
In 1996 the Brooks Act was superseded by Clinger-Cohen, named for a House and Senate member respectively. It came just a couple of years after publication of a scathing Senate committee report called “Computer Chaos.” Clinger-Cohen, or formally the Information Technology Management Reform Act, was embedded in the 1996 Defense Authorization Act. It took away the GSA hegemony and established CIOs in every cabinet agency and in quite a few big agencies and bureaus. ITMRA tried to modernize how the government planned and acquired IT at a time when the networked PC and the burgeoning Internet revolutionized how nearly all organizations conducted business.
Now, in the era of cloud computing, mobile computing, a burgeoning wireless broadband infrastructure, and the apparently growing acceptance of agile and incremental development, a new law is proposed by California Representative Darryl Issa. The Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act is not even introduced yet, but Issa was last week laying the groundwork, circulating it among stakeholders and the trade press.
The ITARA, let’s call it, specifically names those sections of the U.S. Code - 40, 41 and 44 - that deal with federal acquisition, IT and records management. So is the government on the threshold of an “Issa Act” (or Issa-,say, Collins)? Nothing is likely to happen before next year, but the time for some of the Issa provisions has arrived.
From a student-of-government-management standpoint, I find it interesting that the law follows, rather than reorients, what has been management policy of the Obama administration. Against the backdrop of Republican Issa’s antithetical approach to most things Obama, this is a remarkable development - Issa meets (federal CIO) Steve Van Roekel.
Thus the Issa bill calls for:
- Data center consolidation
- More cloud computing
- Weeding out duplicative Web sites
- Sifting out commodity IT assets for consolidation and sharing, and optimizing use of software licenses
- More use of open source software.
These have all been administration priorities, expressed in policies including the 25-point IT reform plan.
The bill is also all about acquisition, calling for:
- Establishing an IT Commodity Acquisition Center - which relates to the Smart Buy and strategic sourcing initiatives.
- An Assisted Acquisition Center of Excellence - which strengthens a GSA effort that hasn’t had much take-up by agencies. Ironically this idea has shades of the Brook Act. In fact this would be managed by GSA and paid for out of fees agencies pay GSA to use its contracts.
- Expansion of training for IT acquisition and project/program performance people - which again, relates to initiatives named in the IT reform plan but hasn’t really gotten off the ground.
- A slowdown in the creation of multiple-award contracts at the agency level by imposing strict business case requirements.
At a recent FedInsider event on reducing waste, fraud, abuse and improper payments, the former Recovery Board chairman Earl Devaney remarked, “Nothing moves the bureaucracy more than a law, especially a law with a deadline.”
Issa’s bill is filled with deadlines for the OMB director to implement the changes. Now the question is how ready the Congress will be to pass a measure that both a Democratic administration and a Republican gadfly can both agree on?