Golden Hammer: GSA’s bad connection delays phone technology

Dial ‘W’ for waste of time, $395 million

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And you thought your phone bill was expensive.

The government wasted $395 million because many agencies that were supposed to switch to a new, cheaper communication system dubbed Networx did not do so in a timely way and because the General Services Administration kept paying for parts of the old system, an investigative report says.

The problems could soon happen all over again, as the same GSA that was in charge of these programs is gearing up to implement yet another phone system.

GSA’s failure to successfully transition its telecommunications services to Networx is the latest in a long line of contracting problems,” said Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a leading advocate of reducing fiscal waste and the top Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“Too often we’ve seen poor planning, unnecessary duplication and inadequate management at GSA,” Mr. Coburn said. “Such mismanagement and waste is simply unacceptable, especially at a time of increasing debts and limited resources.”

For being so slow to switch to technology systems that cost millions of dollars, the GSA and its fellow federal agencies win this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction given by The Washington Times to examples of fiscal abuse, waste and fraud.

The original plan was to have all government agencies switched to Networx by 2010. But a year after that, investigators found that only 61 out of 158 federal offices and agencies had made the transition. Instead, most were still relying on communication technology developed during the 1990s that was much more expensive to run. The GAO estimates that the delay cost taxpayers $329 million.

The GSA itself incurred an extra $66 million above its original estimates, paying contractors for several years to run the old phone system as it tried to switch agencies to the new one. Ironically, throughout the process, one of the GSA’s stated goals was “minimizing transition expenses.”

“It’s this kind of incompetence that makes Americans so frustrated with Washington’s reckless spending,” said Bill Riggs, a spokesman for Public Notice, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog.

“The complex bureaucracy involved in switching phone systems shows how the federal government has become too big and too inefficient to spend our money wisely. When politicians try to say there’s no more waste to cut, Americans should point right back to stories like this and call their bluff,” he said.

The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, said in a report released this week that “complex acquisition processes and weaknesses in project planning contributed to the delays experienced on the Networx transition, resulting in cost increases and missed savings.”

Part of the problem, the GAO said, is a “high-risk” lack of skilled telecommunications specialists in the federal workforce.

“Agencies are concerned that the shortage of telecommunications specialists will get worse because there are not enough to replace experienced workers nearing retirement,” investigators said.

The GSA said it would review the problems with the Networx transition and try to make sure they aren’t repeated.

The office will “examine potential governmentwide telecommunication expertise shortfalls” and improve “project planning guidance to agencies” to ensure they move over to new systems on time, said Dan Tangherlini, the head of the GSA.

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