Rep. Davis: Getting the Most Bang for the IT Dollar

Rep. Davis: Getting the Most Bang for the IT Dollar

Rep. Tom Davis

Just about every major government technology issue crosses the desk of Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. As the chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on technology and procurement policy, Davis this year has examined legislation and held hearings related to federal technology policy, outsourcing, government procurement, work-force development, federal telecom services and electronic government.

Before his election to Congress in 1994, Davis was chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and corporate counsel of PRC Inc., a high-tech firm in McLean, Va. Previously, he was general counsel and vice president of PRC. In a wide-ranging interview with Washington Technology, compiled here by Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery, Davis discussed his views on the key technology issues before Congress.

WT: Should there be a federal chief information officer?

Davis: The administration has tried very hard to put a czar in [for e-government], and we have to see how it works. They brought a good man [Mark Forman] in. The question is, what kind of clout is he going to have when he goes into the agencies? We found that the Clinton administration, until they brought [John] Koskinen in on Y2K, they had good people, but nobody was paying attention. So that's why I like a governmentwide [CIO]. It doesn't have to work that way, but people have to know this guy's the man.

WT: You're willing to let Mark Forman do his job and see how it works?

Davis: Of course. Why in the world would Congress try to pass a bill that the president is not going to sign? We're not out to embarrass the administration. We just want [e-government] to succeed. We understand that there are a lot of territorial politics. [The Office of Management and Budget] doesn't want to give up authority that it already has. That's understandable. So, let's see how it works. But holding hearings and holding feet to the fire will help get the job done.

WT: How much money should be in the e-government pot for interagency e-government projects?

Davis: It's a pittance [right now]: $5 million. It should be considerably more. But first, we need to lay out what we mean by e-government. It's not just making it easier for consumers to interact with their government, although that's certainly important. It's agency talking to agency. It's the federal government talking to state government, talking to local government. It's telecommuting. I'd love to draw a matrix in terms of the kinds of investments we could make and over a period of two to three years that could bring us significant savings in manpower.

WT: On one hand, you push for more outsourcing, which puts you in the camp of the contractors. On the other hand, you say we ought to trust federal workers to do the work.

Davis: I've seen a lot of contracts that we've lost a lot of money on. My favorite one was on my watch when I was chairman of the [Fairfax] county board.

We picked a Fortune 500 company to start repairing school buses. On an ordinary day, the out-of-commission rate for school buses is 2 percent ... on a real bad day, it is up to 5 percent. It went up to 20 percent with these guys. They'd never really done school buses before. They also sent their B squad to run it. We looked into it and found that our guys had been doing a pretty good job. That experience has stayed with me.

Now, under the Clinton administration, they were going to get rid of 200,000-plus federal employees ? who cares? What taxpayers ought to be concerned about is not how many federal employees you have, but what they [the taxpayers] are getting for their dollar. [The administration was] driven by the numbers. That has stayed with me, too. People ought to ask, 'I'm paying a dollar to the government, am I getting a dollar's worth of service?' Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don't. We can do a much better job.

WT: What can be done to improve the procurement process?

Davis: The key to good procurement practices is training, not just in how you administer contracts ? which is very important ? but training on the latest innovations, the latest technologies. We don't do enough of that. We also don't pay our procurement officers, in my opinion, enough.

Look at how much of the procurements are being outsourced. Is that a smart thing? We're doing it because we have to. And I'll tell you what else doesn't help is these acts like TRAC [Truthfulness, Responsibility and Accountability in Contracting Act]. I certainly understand the frustration of government employees, but the answer is not to freeze outsourcing if you don't have the in-house capability. It's not the employees' fault. You've got to hire, pay people, train people.

WT: On outsourcing, is the solution to fix the A-76 process?

Davis: The A-76 process can work under some situations for long-term, giant procurements. The ultimate question is what ought to be outsourced, and what ought to be done in house?

The FAIR [Federal Activities Inventory Reform] Act basically says if the work is not inherently governmental, [contractors] ought to be doing it. And the TRAC Act, on the other side, says government ought to be doing all the work, except in very rare cases. The answer, in my judgment, is neither. The answer is where we get the most bang for the dollar.

What is the most efficient way for the government to provide these services? You're not even on the same playing field if you can't put more money into procurement officers, program managers, training, recruiting and retention. Otherwise, it's so slanted in favor of contracting out. If it is balanced correctly, we'll find more procurements being done in house, but there will be a significant amount of outsourcing.

WT: How much should be spent on employee training?

Davis: It's a pittance compared to what we're losing right now just by improper oversight. It's clearly tens of millions, hundreds of millions. Clearly, it means tampering with pay scales.

WT: What new procurement vehicles should be considered?

Davis: I like the share in savings. You don't pay a nickel until you start getting savings.

WT: Do you think agencies should be allowed to keep the money that they save?

Davis: Absolutely. When I headed the [Fairfax] county government, we couldn't even make payroll at the end of the first week I took office. We went to our agency heads and said, 'You've got to squeeze me some dollars right away.' We squeezed 2 percent to 3 percent savings.

A year later, we went to our managers and said 'For every dollar you save in your budget, you get 25 cents, and you can spend it almost any way you want.' Savings came in at about 13, 14 percent.

I'm also a great believer in cooperative purchasing, which says federal government schedules ought to be applicable to state and local governments. It would be the height of efficiency to do this. I would limit it to information technology. For complex IT products, in some local jurisdictions, I think they'd give their eyeteeth to be able to buy off the schedule instead of having to go through local procurements.

WT: What are your thoughts on the government's transition from the FTS2000 telecommunications contract to the FTS2001 contract?

Davis: They [the General Services Administration] set some goals for implementation that were a little unrealistic. They hadn't figured on how long it would take them. And the incumbents that they have to use, in the meantime, are cutting them no slack, understandably. As I said to them, 'If we don't hold hearings on this, what are you going to do the next time?' It's important to have us looking over their shoulder.

WT: Do you think election reform legislation will pass?

Davis: Yes. Although it has been politicized by certain groups, this is too important an issue to be political about.

WT: How much money should the federal government provide for election reform?

Davis: The bills contain $100 million a year. ... You could double or triple that without any trouble at all. And it ought to be matched by the local governments. You shouldn't ever pass something that rewards governments for being inefficient and making bad decisions.

Now, a word of caution: If the government puts a tremendous amount of money into this, what happens to the price of voting machines? It goes up. So, it's important we try to keep a competitive posture on this and not try to pick one kind of voting machine.

WT: How is the legislative process working this year, when a new president has taken office and the Senate has changed hands?

Davis: You'll see a lot more [legislation] next year. This year Congress has been trying to get its sea legs. A new president, at first a Republican Senate and a Republican House, now a Democratic Senate and a Republican House ? everybody is feeling each other out right now in terms of legislation. So we've held back on some things that will be significant [legislation] in the next year.

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