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Officials see procurement reform as boon to security

The creation of a new Homeland Security Department would give government a chance to create an effective procurement process that helps companies understand government needs and where to showcase their new technologies, speakers said Thursday at the Technology Against Terrorism forum in Washington.

"We have a chance to get it right," said Richard Clarke, the Bush administration's cybersecurity adviser. Outsourcing is a key component of security and more effective than having every agency create its own information technology system, Clarke said. He also suggested setting guidelines and letting contractors pick their own subcontractors.

Clarke advocated removing barriers that keep small businesses from selling to the government, and he recommended the creation of a funding pool to help such companies certify that their products meet security standards. The expense "makes it very difficult for small companies," he said, and government should share the cost of certification.

As Congress crafts legislation to create the new department, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., is looking to incorporate separate legislation he sponsored. One measure, H.R. 3832, would create a federal acquisitions workforce, and the other bill, H.R. 4629, would create a single point of entry for homeland security procurement.

Deidre Lee, director of procurement at the Defense Department, agreed that the new department would give the government a chance to improve procurement. "Mushing together already existing agencies is not going to get us where we need to go," she said. The department would have a great deal of money, Lee said, "and we want to get a technology return on that investment."

Davis noted that his biggest fear is wasting a substantial portion of that money on procurement processes that do not make the most of taxpayer investments.

But Martin Wagner, associate administrator at the General Services Administration, cautioned that the problem is not always with the procurement rules but often with people who do not understand how to operate within the system.

"We need to put a lot of effort into bringing in the right people," he said, noting that many government employees are set to retire and that the government will face a real challenge finding qualified replacements.

One member of the audience called upon agency officials to be more open to suggestions from Congress on companies that offer new technologies, a sentiment Davis heartily endorsed. There is a tendency for some "to look at us as a bunch of special-interest lackeys" pushing to funnel government dollars to their district, Davis said. "There is some of that, but a lot of us are receptive to new ideas [that] an entrenched bureaucracy is not."