Fresh Challenges Ahead

Fear and anxiety have been running rampant in federal information-technology shops lately. Government shutdowns that furloughed almost 300,000 employees caused processing backlogs that are still plaguing agencies. Meanwhile, the continuing budget debate has forced many information resource management offices to restructure their spending plans.

Some computer and communications contracts have been scaled back, while others have been put on hold or even canceled. Hardest hit have been social-services contracts, scientific programs and anything to do with the Commerce Department. The National Weather Service's $266 million Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, for instance, may be in jeopardy as Commerce limps along on a budget that is 30 percent smaller than anticipated.

Other threatened programs include NASA's $2 billion Earth Observing System Data and Information System, the Forest Service's $267 million Project 615 and the Environmental Protection Agency's $140 million Mission Oriented Systems Engineering Support contract. Agencies with projects delayed or canceled are being forced to supplement with buys from existing indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts.

Just about the only programs not affected by the budget crisis are initiatives involving national security or debt collection, or programs in areas such as law enforcement, where funding comes from sources other than appropriations bills. Most other projects are losing steam, causing concern among technology managers who fear they may have to abandon modernization efforts.

About three dozen federal information technology programs are being funded at 1995 levels. And with a balanced-budget resolution seeking cuts of more than $900 billion, fiscal planning for 1997 is chaotic. Some analysts predict overall spending on government information technology in 1997 will remain close to last year's $26 billion level. Others, however, are predicting a first-time drop.

Insecurity and low morale brought on by budget problems are forcing out some of the government's best and brightest technology specialists at a time when agencies need them the most. Within the last year, a record number of senior managers retired or left government to pursue careers in the private sector-including Air Force's Lloyd Mosemann, Defense Department's Cynthia Kendall, IRS's Henry Philcox, NASA's John Lynn and Social Security's Renato DiPentima.

Information technology champions in Congress are leaving, too. Both Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, and Rep. William Clinger, R-Pa., have chosen not to seek reelection this year. They are responsible for pushing through major procurement reform legislation-the 1996 Information Technology Reform Act-that is expected to have more impact on federal technology purchases than the landmark 1994 Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act.

The new law repeals the 30-year-old Brooks Act, which gave the General Services Administration authority over federal computer procurements, and shifts oversight to the Office of Management and Budget. Although agencies still have to comply with government-wide technology and security standards, they are largely free to buy what they want without getting permission from a central authority.

Elimination of the Federal Information Resources Management Regulation-a collection of rules governing federal technology purchases-means that agencies no longer will have to deal with high levels of bureaucracy. But in order to embrace these changes, organizations will have to do a certain amount of reengineering.

The law requires, for instance, that all Cabinet agencies replace senior IRM managers with chief information officers, who will rationalize technology investments. Agencies must set up performance measures for those investments and make projects available for regular reviews. OMB may halt any program that falls more than 10 percent behind its performance targets.

GSA, meanwhile, has been reduced to technological cheerleader and policy broker. The agency has dismantled its Information Technology Service and given the oversight staff responsibility for running GSA's computer systems. Some employees will still analyze technological trends and promote better management practices throughout government.

OMB has formed a Presidential Technology Team that will be available to work on systems-development projects for up to 18 months at a time. The team, made up of volunteer technology experts from the federal sector, will provide advice on requirements analysis, systems engineering, software development, security and testing. The idea is to leverage government's best talent across agency lines to help organizations affected by budget and staff cutbacks.

Also helping agencies cope with downsizing will be new hardware and software products-detailed on the following pages-that enable organizations to do more work with fewer people and less money. These products, combined with innovative practices such as outsourcing, privatization, franchising and state/local partnerships, will enable agencies to turn the year's challenges into opportunities.

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