Industry Insight: Contracting Bill Sends Unaccountably Bitter Message To Tech Industry

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Should the government aggressively pursue modern technology through partnership with the best of the private sector? Perhaps surprising to some, there is a lively debate unfolding in Washington over this question. The tone of this debate was set recently in the 110th Congress -- and so far the chorus is singing a bit off-key.

Phil Bond is president and CEO of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

Case in point: the Accountability in Contracting Act, authored by House Government Reform and Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman. Passed by the House of Representatives on March 15, its very name unfairly implies that hundreds of thousands of Americans working hard to support government agencies in the U.S. and around the world are unaccountable.

These contractors and vendors are just men and women in the IT industry dedicated to helping public servants create innovative ways of serving the American citizens more efficiently and effectively.

The IT community is not afraid of vigorous, informed oversight. We are all familiar with recent high profile -- and exceptional -- examples of waste, fraud and abuse. But there are already laws on the books to deal with the transgressors. And there are myriad rules in place to hold companies accountable for their products, services and results.

The Government Reform and Oversight Committee no doubt has good intentions, but it has sent the wrong message in the way it proceeded in passing this bill. Major legislation deserves timely and serious consideration. Introducing a bill and marking it up in full committee in the span of one week -- and passing it in the full House the next -- does not leave time for such consideration. Such an approach can discourage constructive debate and can also lead to a law made without a full understanding of the costs, complexities and pitfalls of implementation and enforcement.

In this case, the House Armed Services Committee used its jurisdiction to temper the most troublesome of the bill's provisions. Chairman Waxman then accepted most of those changes, resulting in an improved bill for everyone.

For example, one key section of the original legislation would have required federal agencies and departments to report to Congress quarterly on any issues raised about questionable contractor costs and deficiencies "in the performance of any contractor or in any business system of any contractor under any contract, task or delivery order, or subcontract." The result could have been to impose a broad administrative burden on already short-handed contracting officials.

The new version, after modification by the Armed Services Committee, narrows this requirement to the final reports issued by government auditors on all contracts. It only makes sense to let the audit process work rather than deluge contract officials with every un-vetted question or concern, especially those that are addressed to the auditors' satisfaction. The potential burden is proportionately smaller, as is the risk that companies' proprietary information could be disclosed to their competitors.

We do agree wholeheartedly with Chairman Waxman's focus in one important area: More steps are needed to improve a federal acquisition corps that has been allowed to languish over the past decade. We believe this problem is at the root of many of the issues Chairman Waxman is trying to address. But it is in assuring the necessary resources to uphold existing law that we will improve the procurement process; not in writing and rewriting procurement law; not in overburdening the acquisitions officials that we do have; and certainly not by casting aspersions over those who contract with the government to help meet its needs.

In the future, we hope there will be consensus that the laws on the books should be enforced, the acquisition corps strengthened, and that our nation should aggressively pursue a modernized and efficient government through a strong public-private partnership.

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