After slow start, Congress learning to like NMCI

Lawmakers approved money with conditions on future funds

"I believe Congress' perception was that we were somehow pulling a fast one. We were getting ready to issue the largest contract in DoD history, and we hadn't asked for Congress' permission ? and we hadn't asked for any new money to do this." | Ron Turner, deputy chief information officer for plans, policy, performance, infrastructure, systems and technology for the Navy

Trust but verify: That's the approach Congress is taking with the $6.9 million Navy-Marine Corps Intranet program.

With most of their initial misgivings resolved and better communication between Congress and the Navy, lawmakers approved $582 million for NMCI in the 2002 Defense Authorization Act. But the legislation also established milestones and conditions ? including rigorous testing ? that the high-profile program must satisfy in order to win funding during the next budget cycle.

"Congress continues to be interested in the project since it's a groundbreaker. We anticipate their continued attention," said Stephen Ward, government affairs director for Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas, the project's prime contractor.

By all accounts, Congress and the Navy got off to a rocky start on NMCI. Because the Navy wasn't asking for new money for the program, the service didn't provide sufficient information and actively sell the massive outsourcing project on Capitol Hill.

"I believe Congress' perception was that we were somehow pulling a fast one," said Ron Turner, deputy chief information officer for plans, policy, performance, infrastructure, systems and technology for the Navy.

"We were getting ready to issue the largest contract in DoD history, and we hadn't asked for Congress' permission, we weren't treating it like a new start, we weren't treating it like a traditional acquisition program, and we hadn't asked for any new money to do this," Turner said. "From their shoes, I'd be saying, 'Run that by me again?' And they said exactly that. While we might have thought we'd touched all the major bases on the Hill prior to doing this, we obviously hadn't."

Members of the Armed Services committees in the House and Senate began asking questions. They wanted to know how much money the Navy was already spending on desktop IT products and services, how it would pay for NMCI, what the project schedule would be, and how it would impact the Navy's civilian employees and small business partners.

House members, concerned about the cost of NMCI to the Marine Corps, proposed that the Marines be excluded from the project. That provision was taken out of the Defense authorization bill after the Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Jones, said the Marines wanted in. Aviation depots and shipyards were also restored to the project.

The General Accounting Office, however, is conducting a study to determine if the cost of participation affects the ability of the depots and shipyards to compete with the private sector.

The Navy devised plans to protect civilian employees' jobs and its relationships with small businesses, but hard numbers on spending were difficult to determine. Because so many IT purchasing decisions were made at the local command level, the Navy could provide estimates of enterprisewide spending to Congress, but not actual numbers, Turner said.

Disagreement between the Navy and the Pentagon about the level of testing required for NMCI delayed the project, also raising concerns in Congress. The Navy advocated commercial testing procedures; the Pentagon wanted more stringent testing measures such as those applied to weapons systems.

A compromise was reached and incorporated into the Defense authorization bill, S. 1438, which passed the Senate Dec. 13 and was signed by the president Dec. 28. It allows the Navy to order additional seats under NMCI after specific testing and performance milestones are reached.

This event-driven implementation of NMCI will "ensure that the program is fully tested and proven as it is introduced into Navy and Marine field units," said a statement from the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is chairman of the committee; Sen. John Warner, R-Va., serves as ranking minority member.

The bill also requires Navy Secretary Gordon England to report to Congress on the testing and implementation of NMCI when the Navy orders more seats and also when EDS assumes responsibility for more seats, according to the schedule laid out in the bill. It also directs England to name a manager for NMCI whose sole responsibility will be to oversee and direct the program.

The rigorous testing process and the move from a time-based to an event-based schedule reassured many on Capitol Hill, and when a program manager is named, communication with Congress and oversight of NMCI within the Navy should improve further, a congressional source said.

However, the conference report on S. 1438 indicated lawmakers still have some reservations about NMCI.

"Continuing the program requires additional orders of work stations, but so few work stations have been converted to the network that it is not yet clear whether the program will operate as intended," the report said. "The conferees have adopted a plan, based on continued demonstrations of successful testing and performance capabilities, that is intended to allow the program to move forward in a prudent manner. The conferees expect that the Navy, in a departure from past practice, will be fully and readily forthcoming with information about and explanations for any future delays or performance concerns."

The Navy has demonstrated renewed interest in communicating with Congress, a House staff member said recently. The staff member, however, raised concerns about the progress of NMCI, saying it was up to 10 weeks behind schedule, and questioned whether the Navy has controls in place to ensure its commands buy desktop computers configured for their needs, not with extra "bells and whistles."

Navy officials have always done a good job of explaining why they want NMCI and have gotten better at explaining how it will be funded, the staff member said, but added, "I don't think they did enough homework on how it would be implemented."

Navy and congressional sources said they don't expect the House or Senate to hold hearings on NMCI this year, but they do expect congressional staffs will be briefed regularly.

"If history holds true, I expect the department will be back up on the Hill briefing the personal and professional staffs on a fairly regular basis throughout the year," Turner said.

Tests on the system will give lawmakers the data they want, Turner said.

"For the last year, all of the oversight community has heard us say 'Trust us, you'll like what NMCI is,'" he said. "Once the tests are done, we'll have live user and performance data to share with them."

"We're getting close to giving the Hill what they need, we're just not there yet. That said, in spite of any differences we have, I personally think the Hill has bent over backward supporting us," Turner said.

Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at gemery@postnewsweektech.com

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