U.S. Representative Tom Davis

Freshman Rep. Thomas Davis, former vice president and general counsel of a high-technology and professional services firm, is using his experience to help shape federal procurement reform in Congress. Davis, a Republican representing a Northern Virginia district, is also part of a staff information technology caucus and was at one time a member of the Fairfax County, Va., Board of Supervisors. This interview was conducted by Features Editor Brian Miller.

by / April 30, 1996
GT: How has your experience with a high-technology company affected the way you look at information technology as a congressman?

Davis: It's about me knowing what uses of technology are out there -- sometimes it's the applications that we are not using in government. I was in local government for a while before I came here and I recognize that many times information services and technology are the last priority in putting a budget together.

Budgets tend to be very reactive, reacting to pressure from the public. Although you can become much more efficient and up-to-date in the way you do things by employing technology, many times the political pressures are to put more money in some of your social welfare programs or your payout programs in terms of direct services. Information technology doesn't fit into that category so it often gets neglected. That's been true at the federal level as well.

GT: Do you find your awareness of information technology to be different from your fellow lawmakers, who may not have the experience in IT that you have?

Davis: First of all, I've been able to pick an area on procurement law that most members have no interest in at all. There are no [reelection] votes to be had by getting interested in federal procurement policy. Yet there are a lot of changes that we can make in the way we are doing business, if somebody wants to get their teeth into it and try to work that as a legislative niche. And I've kind of found a niche there.

We've worked through some procurement reforms during this cycle and have suggested some others that I think will be enacted over the long term. These will allow government to buy and sell technology in a way that's fairer to federal contracting officers and to the companies that provide them a service. It will also give more value to the public that will benefit from these.

GT: A procurement reform initiative which affects our readers is cooperative purchasing, which enabled state and local governments to use the GSA Schedule as a procurement guide. But the initiative was delayed by Congress until the Government Accounting Office could review it. Will you tell us what happened?

Davis: That's very interesting because there was opposition to that in our Government Reform and Oversight Committee from [Rep.] Bill Zeliff of New Hampshire, who was hearing from a lot of the middlemen who sell equipment to state and local governments and who were basically being taken out of the loop by the cooperative purchasing enacted in 1994.

I've always liked cooperative purchasing because it helps state and local government get the same kind of value the federal government does in the larger pool. But some of the companies that manufacture equipment don't like it because they can sell at a higher price to state and local government. The middlemen who are selling this stuff out there are losing commissions when state and local governments itericoncan buy directly from the co-op instead of from them. So these companies put a lot of pressure on some of the members to try to repeal these provisions.

he reason they enter into a co-op with the federal government, of course, is because that's the way government is going to buy it. They are either going to sell to them or not sell anything at all, so they are forced into a competitive environment. But bringing in state and local governments takes a whole other market share away from them that they were, I wouldn't say gouging, but selling at more inflated prices.

GT: Did state and local governments weigh in on this matter?

Davis: State and local governments weighed in but the reality in Washington is that state and local governments are sometimes not as powerful as some of the companies with political action committees and workers and voters that work for those companies. So the state and local governments are not nearly as strong a lobby on some of these issues, although they do have allies.

I don't want to single out any particular group. But you get a group of manufacturing companies and they all recognize that they can sell a computer for $3,000 to a state and local government whereas it would cost $2,500 if it is cooperatively purchased. They look at selling several hundred of these, and begin counting dollars and cents. So that's how it works and why they get concerned about it.

GT: On information technology in government: what role does it play in government reform? What sorts of things do you think information technology can help?

Davis: Well, it can help in almost every area. In this knowledge-based age, the more information you have, the more intelligent decisions you can make. Getting realtime information in terms of the data available will allow people in government to make more intelligent decisions.

The Department of Defense has probably been ahead of the other agencies because of the demands on defense through time. That kind of capability is now spreading through civilian agencies and I think this will continue. This allows general data gathering, it will allow government to react and get information to citizens, who we're supposed to interact with.

In areas like welfare, instead of going to three or five different places for different benefits, you can do one-stop shopping and have all the information plugged in one area and share it with other areas. We're just beginning to move into some of these areas, and I think the potential is unlimited.

GT: Do your colleagues in Congress have this same understanding of what information technology can do?

Davis: I think a lot of it is generational. You'll find that with members who have been here for some period of time and have never employed these technologies in their previous jobs, it's harder for them to understand it.

Some of the new members understand it pretty well and the younger members seem to understand it a little bit better. Members who have been here a long time before a lot of the technology was developed and deployed have a harder time understanding its significance.

But we are making progress. We have an information technology caucus, and we're starting to share information among staff members. You find most of your members now have technology in their offices and can be e-mailed. It's slow, but it's moving.

I think the speaker has also been helpful in this. Speaker Gingrich understands the technology wave that has taken over the world, and he has tried to be proactive both in Congress and in terms of policies that will help foster the development of American technology. In a worldwide marketplace, this probably has the largest potential for economic growth in America.

GT: How can information technology affect the relationship between various layers of government, such as federal and state, or federal and local? What role does IT play in this?

Davis: Well, I think it can help in sharing information. You'll find that information technology is probably better employed and deployed at the federal level because it's so massive that you couldn't think of doing something without employing it. State governments are getting more sophisticated, but local governments in general still lag behind because of the sheer magnitude of the tasks they are assigned to do.

You couldn't possibly handle things like Social Security, Medicaid or Medicare without employing a very sophisticated technology simply because of the massiveness of the task. At the state and local level, the tasks are not as massive and technology is coming into the fold a little bit later.

But having said that, there are states and localities that do a very good job, even a better job than the federal government. And there are many who are way behind.

GT: Is there a role that the federal government can or should play in helping some of these municipalities or states which are a little bit further behind in deploying technology?

Davis: Well, we can help, but I think the marketplace will generally do a better job of that. As state and local governments get more responsibilities, they're going to have to go out into the marketplace and find out what is there.

GT: The federal government has historically set aside funds for automation, such as the 90 percent funding program for welfare systems. Will federal block grants have funds set aside for information technology?

Davis: There would be some incentives built into the system which would encourage states to be efficient in the way they do things. Really what we are talking about is sophistication and efficiency. The bottom line for government is that they should provide the best possible services at the lowest possible cost and you can't do that anymore without information technology.

There are plenty of models at the federal level they can learn from and some notable mistakes that they can learn from. A lot of the technologies that are employed at the federal level can be employed at the state level and even fine-tuned at the state and local levels.