Keeping track of the big bucks

Over the last seven years, a number of U.S. federal agencies and departments have been implementing a new standardized approach to outsourcing information technology. What this means is government-wide acquisition of services to support a common desktop computing environment from a single source. The system is called seat management. And now, over the course of the next year, the Government of Canada is considering a similar approach in various areas including information technology.

The U.S. lessons are still being examined, and the U.S. General Accounting Office has conducted a preliminary review and analysis of how expenditure and management practices have fared in six departments and agencies engaged in seat management.

As the GAO discovered, there is no firm definition of seat management. But “at its core, it involves using a performance-based contract to obtain equipment, software, and services from a private-sector firm to meet an agency’s distributed computing requirements (typically pertaining to desktop equipment),” says a comprehensive report to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, Committee on Government Reform. Peformance-based contracts were defined as a process in which the customer agency or department specifies a desired outcome or result, then leaves the vendor to decide how best to achieve the goals.

GAO’s Report Summary notes that “no single overarching reason emerged regarding why agencies decided to adopt seat management to address their distributed computing needs.” Instead the six agencies examined gave rationales involving improved IT management, better user support and productivity or upgrading agency IT.

But Gilles Lalonde, president of a small Gatineau, Que., software developer, sees the answer clearly. “Seat management environment became a very flexible way of finding out or controlling the financial aspect of an (IT) engagement,” says Lalonde, whose company Provance Technologies Inc. developed the software used to help manage NASA’s computer and communications system at four space centres.

Lalonde says the trend that emerged in government before the high technology meltdown a few years ago was outsourced IT management. Post-bust, when performance, control and accountability became watchwords in management and expenditure, a new approach evolved among CIOs both inside and outside government. “They still need to control all the financial aspects of their (IT) spending, who is spending it, and develop a charge-back model to track exactly how their money is being spent,” says Lalonde. “Seat management was actually developed just for that.” Provance’s management tools are used by Lockheed Martin Information Technology, under contract to NASA to track deployment of all its desktop and network operations. Lockheed Martin Information Services Solutions also uses Provance’s management solution for the Pentagon.

Provance is also partnered with Northrop Grumman to provide IT seat management services to the Peace Corps and the Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

The six agencies reviewed by GAO included NASA and the Peace Corps. (Details are in the 68-page GAO report at Since the 2002 report, the Internal Revenue Service has issued a draft RFP for a pilot program to test seat management in Chicago, Detroit and Kansas City. But the pilot approach was halted for re-evaluation with an announcement that the study may be modified to full IRS-wide seat management implementation.

Treasury Board spokesman Mario Baril says the federal government is conducting a review of expenditure and management practices in a number of areas.

“Amongst these,” he said, “is the use of information technology and its management including the merits of considering moving in the whole of government to a managed common desktop service.

“This work will continue over the next year and decisions on appropriate approaches and solutions will be made following further consideration of experience in other governments, provincial and federal, the experiences and best practices of the private sector and most importantly, the needs of the Government of Canada.”

Marlene Orton is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist specializing in high technology issues

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