The Bush 41 Administration’s IT Legacy

Former President George H.W. Bush

Former President George H.W. Bush Matt Sayles/AP File Photo

Much of today’s IT procurement landscape is the result of reforms from when the late President George H.W. Bush was in the White House.

As information technologies—computers, networks, email and the like—began permeating society in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, then-President George H.W. Bush’s administration was dealing with many of the same problems agencies are dealing with today. His administration also set in place the IT policy and procurement frameworks by which the government still operates.

As the nation mourns the loss of the 41st president, former White House officials and Hill staffers noted IT is an often-overlooked part of the first President Bush’s legacy.

During Bush 41’s term, ARPANET, the first computer network—designed by Defense Department engineers—turned 20 years old and Tim Berners-Lee released the framework for the World Wide Web. Inside the federal government, agencies were building networks and integrating computers with the mission, though not always successfully.

In the White House and on the Hill, officials were seeing the emergence of tech issues the government continues to struggle with today, namely large programs prone to failure, convoluted procurement needs and an industry reticent to work with government.

On the Hill, Mark Forman, a staffer on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee who would later become the first administrator of the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of E-Government and IT under George W. Bush, remembers talk of IT “horror stories,” such as large Defense Department weapons systems that didn’t work properly or the Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to modernize its systems—issues that continue to plague both agencies today.

During all of this, the technological advances made by the Defense Department were being put to the test in the First Gulf War.

“People saw the success of some things but not others,” said Forman, who currently serves as global leader of public sector at Unisys. “Everyone wanted to know: How do we catch up to the speed of technology advancement in the commercial world?”

In order to bring more technology into government, the administration had to focus on its procurement challenges. At the time, few tech companies wanted to work with the federal government, said Al Burman, who served as the head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy under President Ronald Reagan and then Bush 41.                           

“In the late 1980s, early 1990s, the federal government with its prescriptive and how-to procurement processes was having all kinds of difficulty in bringing big IT companies and their innovations into the federal marketplace,” Burman told Nextgov. “Each of these companies had its own methods for doing business and they weren’t about to let the government tell them how to do their jobs.”

The procurement officials at OFPP worked with their colleagues on the Hill to develop a performance-based acquisition policy that instructed agencies to outline the results they were looking for, rather than a set of specific technical requirements.

“By adopting this practice, agencies could encourage different IT firms to bid, with each offering its unique technical approach to doing the work,” explained Burman, who currently serves as president of government consulting firm Jefferson Solutions. “I signed this performance-based services contracting policy letter in April 1991 and PBA has been supported by the Congress and followed on a bipartisan basis since it was put into effect.”

These measures, among others, led to the creation of the Multiple Awards Schedule at the General Services Administration. Among the schedules created was IT Schedule 70, the main IT procurement vehicle governmentwide to this day.

At that time, GSA also renamed the Federal Telecommunications Service the Federal Technology Service, which would later become part of the Federal Acquisition Service, Forman noted.

“That wouldn’t have happened without the Bush administration’s procurement and government affairs people at GSA really pushing these concepts to simplify commercial acquisition using these catalog concepts,” he said. “Nowadays, we take it as second nature. But back then, it was pretty revolutionary.”

All of this work also led to a focus on shared services organizations, Burman said, like the Defense Information Systems Agency—known as the Defense Communications Agency until a name change during Bush 41’s term—and Defense Finance and Accounting Service, established in 1991.

Forman agreed.

“I think it’s also important to look at the back-office shared services functions that were consolidated almost entirely because of the IT issues,” he said, also citing DISA and DFAS as examples. “These are longstanding [agencies]. The need hasn’t gone away and they continue to evolve.”

While technology continues to advance, it is the non-technical problems that continue to hamper government progress. But the frameworks developed during the first Bush presidency have survived, and are often cited as the things that do work in the federal IT procurement world.

“I think that’s a strong legacy: laying the foundation for government’s use of IT that persists to today,” Forman said.