Congress has ordered the General Services Administration to form special interagency groups to oversee contracting and operations for FTS-2000, the multibillion-dollar federal telephone system that GSA is preparing to put out for bids.
The instructions, included as a report in the federal budget package passed this week, were inserted by Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) and Rep. Frank Horton (R-N.Y.) of the House Government Operations Committee with input from companies that are hoping to bid on the project.
GSA's inspector general, the Justice Department and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee are investigating the possibility that there was criminal misconduct in connection with a $55 million contract awarded by GSA in October to upgrade the existing federal phone system pending phase-in of FTS-2000.
Congressional sources said that the order to GSA was not motivated by those probes, however. Momentum for interagency groups began developing before the investigations became known, the sources said, and the request for interagency oversight is meant to assure that the phone system is efficient, cost-effective and has as many federal agencies participating as possible.
In addition, vendors had asked for congressional help in making the terms and standards of bidding in the huge process as clear as possible.
The bill also requires federal agencies to remain on the system for the duration of its operation unless they meet certain exemption standards. The earlier plan, which critics said created uncertainty, was for agencies to remain in for four years and then have the right to opt out for other phone systems.
The joint groups that Congress has ordered will consist of people from the six agencies that are the heaviest users of the phone system that FTS-2000 will replace.
In addition, GSA was told to establish a "management council" of the same six agencies to oversee operation of the new system once it is in place.
GSA spokesman Paul W. Costello said GSA Administrator Terence Golden supported the idea. "We don't see anything in there that indicates a lack of confidence" with GSA, Costello said in response to a question about congressional confidence. "This is something that will probably strengthen the whole process of getting FTS-2000 implemented."