Davis: Congress lacks big picture when it comes to IT

House Republican leader describes congressional micromanagement of IT procurement at the CES Government conference in Las Vegas.

The U.S. government is the largest buyer of information technology and services in the world, but according to House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, "it's amazing how little members of Congress understand about this. Members tend to legislate on the procurement side anecdotally."

Davis (R-Va.) made his comments last week at the CES Government conference in Las Vegas, sponsored by ICG Government, FedSources and the Consumer Electronics Association.

"Most members do not understand the intricacies of government buying, how we purchase goods; [they] don't understand the schedules and GWACs [governmentwide acquisition contracts] or anything else," Davis said. "They get a letter from constituents who lose their jobs to an overseas firm or who feel they got shorted on a contract and they put in some amendment. They get some company that thinks they can produce something and they'll write some specification to help them."

As a result, Davis said it's important to keep policy out of IT procurement decisions and listen to CIOs and contracting officers.

"When we go out and buy goods and services, we ought to make sure we're getting the best value for the taxpayers," he said. "And yet in our procurement system we put so many bells and whistles on what we have to deal with?a set-aside here, a set-aside here, a 'buy America' this or that?that at the end of the day we get straitjacketed and we don't have a path to buy the best goods."

Davis said that every year there are dozens of efforts by members of Congress to meddle with the procurement process. Specifically, he criticized efforts to change Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 competitive-sourcing programs.

"We have no measuring stick in government to decide if we're doing [things] efficiently or not," Davis said. "There's no marketplace with which to judge our efficiencies."

Davis estimated that government wins 80 percent of A-76 competitions and that the process ultimately forces some agencies to reorganize or change the way they operate in order to improve service.

But not everyone in government sees A-76 competition the same way. According to an exclusive GCN survey of federal IT managers, respondents have overcome their initial wariness of Circular A-76, but they haven't totally embraced it. Just 28 percent of respondents to the 2005 survey said A-76 was helping government's effectiveness; 39 percent said it is not.

When it comes to large-scale IT initiatives, Davis worries that much of Congress simply isn't interested. He said there's no political gain to many members getting involved with issues such as the government's migration to the IPv6 network protocols. But that doesn't make them less important.

"Strong IPv6 support from the U.S. government will strengthen the perception that IPv6 is a trusted, legitimate technology that should be in the future plans of American business and the public sector."

Davis said he asked one of the founding members of the Congressional Internet Caucus what he though of IPv6 and got "a blank stare. He didn't know what I was talking about."

Brad Grimes is the chief technology editor of Washington Technology's sister publication, Government Computer News.

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