IRM Roundtable

April 1996


IRM Roundtable

Information resource managers brace for a turbulent year.

Our Fifth Annual IRM Roundtable comes on the heels of government shutdowns that have caused data-processing backlogs, personnel shortages and low morale. An uncertain budget environment has delayed or canceled many procurements of key hardware, software and communications products. And the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996 has forced radical reengineering that has tested the patience and stamina of every federal technology manager.

"Just when demands are the greatest for information-technology services, our staffs are being reduced," says Jane Sullivan, director of the Treasury Department's Office of Information Resources Management. Other IRMs share her frustration. As the Army's David Borland put it: "The challenge is to efficiently manage our limited automation resources to ensure that we properly leverage technology and its benefits."

The following pages detail IRM concerns-from implementation of procurement-reform initiatives and consolidation of data centers to resolution of "the year 2000 problem," which threatens to knock out every federal computer with the turn of the century. The managers talk about how they plan to spend their limited technology dollars and trends for the year ahead.

Participants in the roundtable were:

  • David Borland, Army
  • Mark Boster, Justice Department
  • Rear Adm. James Davidson, Navy
  • Lt. Gen. John Fairfield, Air Force
  • Woody Hall, Energy Department
  • Neil Stillman, Department of Health and Human Services
  • Jane Sullivan, Treasury Department
  • Eugene Taylor, Department of Transportation

How did the government shutdowns affect your information-technology operations?

Stillman: They were serious distractions that imposed delays on all ongoing projects. Backlogs developed in reviewing our component agencies' submissions and requests. Although the shutdowns are a thing of the past, an uncertain budget environment and reduced continuing resolution funding levels continue.

Taylor: The Transportation Department was fortunate enough to have its appropriations passed before the lengthy government shutdown, so our information-technology (IT) operations were not impacted.

Hall: Energy was partially funded early on and did not experience a shutdown, but initiatives involving other agencies were affected. For instance, in the acquisition area we have been working with other agencies to make existing and future contracts available for use throughout the government-reducing the necessary procurement actions conducted. These initiatives were delayed. Interagency business also was adversely affected. Among the events canceled or postponed: A Commerce meeting dealing with wireless communication and frequency allocation, an Interagency Management Council conference and a NIST training session on Internet security for IRM managers.

Boster: The Justice Department was unable to move customer and system backups to a safe off-site location. During this period, backup customer data and system data was at risk. An on-site disaster could have had a devastating impact with the loss of one month of customer processing. In addition, several much-needed procurements were delayed. Loss of full-time contractor consulting support resulted in additional project delays over and above time lost during the shutdowns. Because some of the contractors were not getting paid during the shutdowns, several of them were reassigned. Many assignments extended beyond the date the department returned to work and some are still ongoing. This has caused a slippage of a month or more on many projects.

Sullivan: Essential operations were kept running, but many supportive staff were not available. Interagency activities that Treasury conducts with other departments such as Social Security and Labor were affected. Development of interagency requirements for new systems and enhancements to existing ones-especially for National Performance Review (NPR) initiatives-were halted when personnel from those agencies were furloughed.

Fairfield: The shutdown had less of an impact on our information technology program as compared to the lack of a Defense budget. The signing of the Defense appropriation bill late last year without an authorization bill put us under a continuing resolution type of posture. New program starts were delayed while operations and maintenance-funds requirements deferred.

Davidson: Fortunately, the government shutdown had only a moderate impact on our information-technology operations. Of course, national security and other essential missions were not affected because we had contingency plans in place and enough essential personnel available to continue critical operations throughout the shutdowns. Some acquisition milestones for IT procurements were delayed-no more than two weeks at the most. But we are optimistic that these delays are manageable as we move toward contract awards.

Borland: Army operations were maintained throughout the shutdowns with minimal staffing on duty. Some ongoing actions were delayed due to key points of contact being absent. This resulted in some projects experiencing a slowing of activity, but overall impact was minimal.

How have recent acquisition-reform initiatives affected procurements at your agency?

Borland: In a positive way. We've reduced contract administration lead time-saving time and money by reducing required documentation. In addition, credit-card purchases have allowed for quicker procurement of supplies and replacement parts for automation equipment, thus minimizing downtime.

Hall: Energy has realized savings by reducing the number of procurement actions and using existing government contracts to fulfill requirements. Credit cards have allowed some commodities to be purchased rapidly and cost effectively. The real benefits will be reaped in the future with large acquisitions such as our TELIS procurement.

Fairfield: The Air Force has been a leader in applying industry best practices and the tenets of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA), especially when it comes to open communications with industry. The Desktop IV multi-award concept has paid off well both in terms of technology insertion-best bang for the buck-and cost effectiveness. We have produced true competition through the use of multiple awards and functional specifications.

Davidson: FASA's biggest impact on the Navy is seen in two areas: simplified acquisition procedures and electronic commerce. We now have the ability to easily acquire smaller dollar value IT resources using micro purchasing-government credit cards-and other simplified procedures. We believe this capability will reduce cost and cycle time, leading to the benefits of paperless procurements. We are already experiencing more open competition, lower prices without a sacrifice in quality, better delivery schedules and increased personnel productivity.

Sullivan: Less time will be spent doing procurements to acquire IT as a result of FASA. More open communications between public and private sectors will be necessary for the industry to get more attuned to the business goals that drive technology requirements within government. This partnering will be significant as contract performance becomes more significant.

Sullivan: The Department of Health and Human Services streamlined processes at the lower dollar levels, particularly supporting greater use of credit cards. In addition, we've implemented performance measures in our service contracts.

Boster: FASA has had little practical effect upon the Justice Department's operation. Most of our contracts are over $100,000 in value, so the increase in the Simplified Acquisition Threshold has not cut down our contract workload. If anything, it seems there are more constraints we have to deal with-such as the requirement to evaluate past performance in virtually all our new contracts and to set up a contractor report-card system. About the only area where we have seen relief is in the micropurchase arena, where purchases under $2,500 can be performed noncompetitively and not be restricted to small-business concerns. The use of the VISA Purchase Card for these micro-purchases has been a blessing.

Taylor: The Federal Aviation Administration has been exempted from most acquisition rules, and a blue-ribbon panel is currently developing new procurement guidance that will enable FAA practices to be more closely aligned to private industry. FAA also has been a pioneer in the use of oral presentations. Reliance on past performance as a critical evaluation criterion also is increasing at Transportation.

What is your agency's involvement in the Internet and electronic commerce?

Sullivan: IRS has made more than 500 of the most popular tax forms available through the Commerce Department's National Technical Information Service. In addition, Treasury is participating in NPR's U.S. Business Advisor project, making employer tax information available over the Internet. Electronic commerce (EC) is a major thrust at Treasury as well. The Financial Management Service, Customs and the IRS have significant electronic data interchange (EDI) activities under way. Our agency has established an electronic gateway for all Treasury bureaus and has participated in the Public Key Infrastructure Task Force to advance EC security.

Hall: The Energy Sciences Network, which is connected to the Internet, is used in the exchange of scientific information between the laboratories, universities and contractors supporting various operations offices. A department home page has been developed and links have been established to program offices and other government agencies. Information made available via the home page includes major procurements in the making, department policy and accomplishments. We are implementing EC and EDI for procurements under $100,000. The department also is working on another EC/EDI application that awards grants to educational institutions electronically.

Davidson: Our Information Technology Electronic Commerce (ITEC) project is an acquisition strategy as well as an on-line electronic ordering catalog. The acquisition strategy promotes the use of commercial-based information technologies and practices that are built upon approved standards and architecture profiles. ITEC Direct is a four-level virtual shopping mall on the World Wide Web that allows on-line ordering of products and services. When fully implemented, it will offer Navy program managers and others easy access to a robust selection of IT products and services, at market price or better, with shortened delivery cycles. We also have a home page that provides access to additional information and databases that may be helpful to our IT users.

Stillman: HHS maintains an Internet presence for all of its component agencies and currently averages about 100,000 accesses weekly. We also are actively implementing the Government Information Locator Service to identify available HHS information on the Internet. HHS supports the governmentwide electronic-commerce initiative and utilizes electronic means for a growing number of our procurement actions.

Taylor: Our Web site links to agency home pages that provide the public with the latest press releases, transportation statistics, Commerce Business Daily notices, Requests for Proposals, etc. Electronic commerce, meanwhile, is playing an important role in both grant and acquisition activities. The Federal Highway Administration's Electronic Signature Project is permitting states to get documents for federal-aid highway projects approved electronically. The Transportation Automated Procurement System will ultimately result in a paperless procurement system that will support electronic data interchange with DOT trading partners via the Federal Acquisition Computer Network.

Boster: Justice provides Internet gopher and World Wide Web services that allow the public to retrieve documents about the department's activities. These services respond to more than 100,000 queries each week. DOJ also links to many other criminal-justice resources throughout the Internet, and hosts IGNet-an electronic meeting place for inspectors general throughout the federal government. In addition, the department is providing employees with firewalled access to Internet services and gateways to Internet mail. Electronic commerce pilots have been established at several procurement offices.

Fairfield: The Air Force uses the Internet daily to obtain technical assistance, software upgrades, information on new technology and access to military-installation home pages. We recently installed EDI capability at more than 80 Air Force and Marine Corps contracting offices.

Borland: The Internet is quickly becoming an important tool for getting up-to-date information out to the warfighters and civilians working issues across Army commands. Use of the Internet allows for the effective and efficient sharing of information and serves to educate and promote the use of information technology as we move toward the Army of the 21st century. The Army is actively involved in all facets of electronic commerce, including EDI, electronic funds transfer and bulletin-board systems. While FASA placed primary focus of implementing electronic commerce on the procurement community, the Army's financial and logistics communities have had on-going EC initiatives for more than 10 years in the areas of inventory management, subsistence ordering and payments.

What are the biggest challenges you face this year?

Davidson: Repeal of the Brooks Act, the expanded role of OMB, the newly created CIO position and other provisions of the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996 will dramatically change the way we acquire and manage information technology. We must be prudent in transitioning towards this new environment. Another critical challenge is the Year 2000 problem, which is complex from both a management perspective and a technical perspective. Dates are everywhere-meaning all program code must be examined. And the 21st century is less than four years away!

Sullivan: Just when demands are the greatest for IT services, our staffs are being reduced. All of these things are occurring just as the Year 2000 date changeover will mandate big demands for additional resources. Making maximum use of skilled IT personnel for reengineering tasks is our biggest challenge for 1996.

Taylor: Devising strategies that will enable the Transportation Department to continue to meet critical mission and program needs-such as air traffic control, safe and efficient waterway and highway transportation, and law enforcement-in light of significant downsizing and budget constraints. Information technology will play an increasingly important role as we strive to deal with reduced personnel and financial resources.

Fairfield: We must develop, acquire and deploy a basewide communications infrastructure with the bandwidth to support current and future voice, data and video/imagery requirements. We also must integrate functional applications into a common base infrastructure and ensure communications capabilities are protected from unwanted access.

Hall: Our first major challenge is accomplishing strategic goals while dwindling resources are causing constant reorganization and low employee morale. The other challenge is establishing a corporate- or enterprise-wide emphasis on information resources at an agency in which heretofore each major site has been organized to operate autonomously.

Boster: We must find better ways to use our resources to assist component organizations in planning, developing and deploying systems. We're revamping department-level processes to increase emphasis on support and customer service. Of major importance is the need to promote open communication and collaboration across component organizations, which face difficult challenges building today's systems. Development methods are changing dramatically with the use of automated tools and development teams that might be located at multiple sites. Communications technologies that drive our information systems across the country and the world are rapidly changing, as are the costs. We want to play an active role brokering joint initiatives, providing hands-on technical support and facilitating cost-effective approaches to planning, contracting, development and evaluation.

Borland: Our biggest challenges in 1996 relate to development and implementation of the Army Enterprise Architecture, which is key to providing warfighters with systems that interoperate in joint operations and assure command-and-control decision-cycle superiority. We must assess the program, cost and schedule impacts on more than 200 systems and programs. While automation is critical to the future of the Army, we are facing an overall reduction of resources-both people and dollars. The challenge is to efficiently manage our limited automation resources to ensure that we properly leverage technology and its benefits. This includes a continual evaluation of the acquisition process to streamline it when and where possible.

Stillman: Uncertainty over annual funding levels poses significant uncertainties for our department. Nearly all of our IT funding falls on the discretionary side of the federal budget, which is under more pressure than the program side, in times of fiscal constraint. The prospect is for large reductions in all discretionary accounts this year and in future years. In addition, implementation of provisions of the Cohen bill-the most significant legislation affecting IRM since the Brooks Act (which it repeals)-will be a challenge. The transition from centralized control to much greater autonomy will alter roles of both the IRM and program offices. Transfer of oversight authority from GSA to OMB, and emphasis on investment analysis and performance measurement, will impact all major information-technology projects.

What do you consider the hottest IT products for 1996?

Boster: IT executives are estimating downtime costs [on client-server networks] between $500 and $250,000 per hour. If the department could provide an easy and cost-effective process, whereby client-server platforms could be backed up to secure mainframe environments, then these downtime costs could be reduced. Once vendors agree to a standard so that encrypting firewalls-which enable organizations to build secure networks across the Internet-can be interoperable, it will be vastly easier to build encryption into applications by standardizing the programmer's interface to the required software modules. Finally, Year 2000 conversion products and services will be hot. The clock is ticking down, the vendors are beating the drums, and information-systems managers will be starting to take this issue seriously this year.

Hall: Client-server and related technology continues to be important. Workgroup products permit individuals from many organizations, physical locations, skills, disciplines and experience levels to participate in a common business process. Products like Lotus Notes, human-resource software from Peoplesoft and Oracle, and desktop video are being looked at closely within the Energy Department. The new operating systems, Windows 95 and Windows NT, are generating much interest. So are ATM, fast Ethernet and other technologies that increase backbone bandwidth or use it more efficiently.

Davidson: The hottest products this year are associated with networking, Internet access and the telecommunications infrastructure. We continue to see a large demand for local-area network, wide-area network and enterprise-network products and services. Users continue to migrate from mainframe to networking technologies and also are upgrading their old networking products. The heavy emphasis on EC/EDI is a significant factor fueling the rapid expansion of the Internet. With increased use of electronic commerce, information-security products will remain hot items in the foreseeable future. And finally, the telecommunications infrastructure is providing the backbone for communications expansion.

Taylor: The X.500 technology will play a pivotal role in enabling DOT to integrate its electronic messaging capability in order to provide seamless, worldwide communications among a variety of diverse information-technology systems and databases. With its security features, [the standard] will allow us to move aggressively into electronic commerce. In light of our streamlining plans, I also believe that products that help staffs work better together will be important. Consequently, Internet tools, videoconferencing and groupware will figure prominently in our future.

Borland: Wireless technology can easily be adapted into the Army for tactical and garrison use. The ability to provide mobile LAN and peripheral connectivity without the use of wires or cables is of great importance in the highly mobile Army environment. Fast, reliable and secure wireless technology will allow for data flow on the move.

Fairfield: Digital signatures provide both authentication and integrity that the individual "signing" is truly that individual. Java is another new promising product providing the capability to transmit data.

Sullivan: Web technologies are the largest event of the year. As Treasury moves more information and business activities to the Internet, Web products will be critical.

Stillman: The Internet and the products and services that it has spawned-Netscape, Java and on-line services will be hot this year. The Internet is providing access to an ever increasing volume of information and services to government personnel and the citizens of this nation and the world.

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