NASA's Other Launch

As NASA streamlines its operations and pares down its payroll, its executives plan to divest the agency of a major administrative burden: the 50,000 or so PCs and Macintoshes used by employees and on-site contract staff. In the government's largest PC outsourcing program to date, the space agency will turn over management of its desktop computers and local area networks to contractors next year.

That this should be occurring in NASA is not surprising. Its contract employees already outnumber civil servants 8-to-1, and NASA has been under even more pressure than other agencies to reduce its staff. Next year, for the first time since the beginning of the space program in 1961, NASA expects to have fewer than 20,000 employees.

Such a lean and mean agency should focus its resources on the special challenges associated with landing a robot explorer on Mars while preparing to visit Saturn and its moons. That's the thinking behind the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA. Cost avoidance is another goal for ODIN, but agency officials talk about the strategic benefits of outsourcing more than they talk about savings, which will be shared between the contractor and the agency.

In an unusual step for one of the government's most decentralized agencies, headquarters has told the 11 NASA centers they are expected to obtain their desktop computers and internal communications systems through ODIN. Until now, the centers mostly have made their own arrangements to acquire PCs and local area networks. The result has been a hodgepodge of computers, software and support services.

Contracting for PCs and office systems support is not new to NASA. "We already outsource the bulk of IT operations," says Skip Kemerer, head of the Multi-Services/ADP branch at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. ODIN is different because acquisition is centralized and contractors will manage the systems. No longer will employees choose what's on staff desktops. Instead, the centers will specify what they need in terms of levels of service. A contractor will do whatever it takes to supply that level of service.

Whether it's terminal emulation capabilities for a PC, a LAN upgrade or simply a mouse pad, an ODIN contractor will deliver it. NASA will retain title to its old PCs, but a contractor will own the new ones. NASA will own the wires, both new and old, that snake through its buildings, but almost everything else will belong to the contractors. The agency will have no more than one contractor per center, although it expects to award a half-dozen contracts.

ODIN goes back to October 1996, when a headquarters report made the case for outsourcing the PCs. That report, which has not been made public, is said to have identified an opportunity for cost savings while standardizing the computing and off-loading the support responsibilities. "NASA wants to focus on the strategic enterprise," Kemerer says.

An agencywide task force began to hammer out the procurement specifications in February. In such a diverse and decentralized organization, reaching consensus on a common architecture and set of specs has been time-consuming. "The cultures of the centers are very different," says Vicki C. Pendergrass, ODIN project manager.

Consensus Building

"I would say that 85 percent of our effort has been in coordination and consensus-building," Kemerer says. Because it's difficult for headquarters to force the centers to use ODIN, it has been especially important to get the centers to buy-in to the program. Questions and concerns have been varied, according to Pendergrass. She said ensuring the security and integrity of the centers' files has been one of the issues most often raised.

The 20 task force members come from the 10 centers that will use ODIN (the 11th center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has undertaken a similar outsourcing project on its own, ahead of ODIN).

The ODIN team published the service level specs in July. The final RFP is scheduled for November. Award of ODIN contracts is expected in June 1998.

At first the outsourcing contracts will cover only the general-purpose desktop computers and office servers, but the agency is building into the contracts the potential to expand them to scientific and technical workstations, and possibly to on-campus telephone services. In any case, the contracts will call for technology updates.

ODIN contractors will be paid for performance, although how that will work has not been resolved. At a time of new federal emphasis on performance measurement, many eyes will be on ODIN.

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