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Bill proposes IT worker swap

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill that would create a tech worker-exchange program between the federal government and businesses.

Amid concerns that the government faces a critical shortage of information-technology skills, the House of Representatives is expected to vote next month on a bill that would create an IT worker-exchange program between the federal government and businesses.

The Digital Tech Corps Act would aim to place hundreds of private-sector employees with top-notch IT skills at federal agencies on temporary assignments of up to two years. Government agencies would in turn lend members of their IT staffs for assignments in the business world.

The House was scheduled to vote on the bill Wednesday, but postponed the vote until representatives return from a recess in early April. The House Committee on Government Reform approved the bill last week.

Proponents say the program would help alleviate a shortage of skilled workers at government agencies. The government is losing many of its IT managers to businesses due to lower salaries and longer hiring processes at most agencies, they say. And to make matters worse, more than 50 percent of the federal government's IT work force will be eligible to retire by 2006, according to bill co-sponsor Rep. Tom Davis, R.-Va.

But some people are concerned that companies could become too chummy with federal agencies, gaining an unfair advantage in bids for government contracts. Such concerns over conflict of interest derailed a planned employee exchange program between the Department of Defense and the high-tech companies in 1999.

Another roadblock could be businesses' reluctance to give up talented workers and the fear that government workers may not return to their public-service posts.

The legislation requires government employees to return to public service for a time equal to their private-sector assignment. If they don't, they must pay back some expenses, such as benefits costs, except for salary. Workers on loan would receive salary and benefits from their permanent employer during their assignment.

Gartner analyst Diane Tunick Morello says approval of the Digital Tech Corps Act shows the U.S. government is getting serious about enhancing its IT practices.

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The proposed legislation comes as several federal agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of the Interior, are under heavy fire for having outdated and inadequate computer systems. A study released last year by the Government Reform Committee estimates that more than 40 percent of major federal IT purchases end in failure, said Davis.

"We need individuals who can work daily on reviewing the status of IT modernizations or cross-agency initiatives," said Davis, who first introduced the bill in July. "Unfortunately, the government cannot attract mid-level IT managers who can perform these functions."

For companies that sell to the public sector, a chance to get an inside look at the government should persuade many to lend an employee to the program, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

"What better way to get insight into the way the government operates than this?" said Miller. "You would gain expertise beyond what any amount of training or education could provide."