Cover: Surplus Federal Computers for Schools

Surplus Federal Computers for Schools

An Assessment of the Early Implementation of E.O. 12999

Published 1997

by Thomas K. Glennan, Jr., Walter S. Baer, Susanna W. Purnell, Gwen Farnsworth, Gina Schuyler Ikemoto


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In April 1996, the President signed Executive Order (E.O.) 12999, Educational Technology: Ensuring Opportunity for All Children in the Next Century. The purpose of E.O. 12999 is to promote the transfer of unneeded federal government computer equipment to schools and educational nonprofit organizations. Government departments and agencies were required to develop implementation plans, which were to be submitted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) late in 1996.

Purpose and Research Approach

In response to a request from Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), OSTP asked RAND's Critical Technologies Institute (CTI) to assess the program's initial progress and provide recommendations for improvement.

In response, CTI staff conducted three tasks:

  • Examined the potential supply of surplus government computers in relation to school needs
  • Assessed agencies' early experiences with E.O. 12999, focusing on barriers to implementation
  • Identified lessons and "best practices" from existing government programs and successful private-sector efforts that might be applied to overcome these barriers.

To do this, CTI gathered information on the number of computers that might be distributed from the 13 largest federal agencies and examined their implementation plans. We also conducted over 80 interviews with key agency personnel, private firms, nonprofit recycling organizations, state officials, schools, and school districts.

Characteristics of Federal Surplus Computers and Implications for Schools

The number of federal computers donated to schools is very uncertain. Based on interviews with government officials, we estimate that, in the last year, between 30,000 and 50,000 computers were donated either directly or through the Federal Surplus Property Donation program.[1] In the future, donations could be significantly greater as a result of improved agency collection practices and greater use of refurbishing and upgrading services.

About a quarter of the government's approximately 2.1 million computers are replaced each year. Thus the number of computers potentially available for transfer is about 500,000 annually. However, most of these are not operable. Based on estimates given us by the private sector, we estimate that 10 to 35 percent of surplus computers are in good working order. If we use 20 percent as a reasonable figure, that would translate into approximately 100,000 working surplus computers available for donation from the federal government. Refurbishing and upgrading could double or triple the available number of working surplus computers and thus significantly increase the contribution of the federal donation program. Since public schools have acquired approximately 1 million computers annually for the past several years, effective implementation of E.O. 12999 has the potential to make a significant contribution to the installed base of computers in the nation's schools.

The uneven geographic distribution of the government computers influences the usefulness of this program to certain schools. Given the uneven distribution of government personnel throughout the United States and the federal regulations prohibiting agencies from packing and shipping computers,[2] the program has more potential for schools located in close proximity to federal installations than those at greater distances.

Implementing E.O. 12999: Major Barriers

We concentrated on the plans and experiences of the 13 agencies that hold over 90 percent of the government computers. We looked at two aspects of implementation: One concerns agency challenges, the second concerns the order itself.

Agency Challenges

For most agencies, the actual number of computers affected is small, and the donation effort itself is not central to the agency mission. Given these facts, a fairly predictable set of challenges emerged:

Lack of existing donation programs. Nine of the 13 agencies had no prior program. While those with experience built on previous programs, the others had to create new ones, including agency policy, guidelines, and documentation. However, the four agencies that did have existing programs house 55 percent of the government's computers, so this challenge is not as widespread as it might appear.

The program is not given high priority by the higher echelons. Most of the programs are housed in the property and inventory offices of the agency and get little attention from the upper-level managers.

No funds are authorized for carrying out the E.O. Given the era of government downsizing, most agencies treat this as an add-on task with little or no extra resources added.

Agency Concerns with the Executive Order

At the time of this study, agencies cited several problems and uncertainties about the intent and language of the E.O. itself:

The E.O. is unclear about its goals for school selection. The E.O. asks agencies to give preference to schools located in Empowerment Zones and Enterprise Communities (EZ/EC), but many agencies have existing competing programs that better reflect their missions and/or are perceived to make important contributions. Although the vague wording in the E.O. was intended to provide agencies with flexibility, the agencies are uncertain whether the E.O. allows them to continue to give priority to existing programs. The prohibition against agencies' shipping computers makes it even more difficult to transfer them to EZ/EC schools, which usually are located some distance from agency warehouses.

In the view of agencies, the E.O. does not adequately define "educational nonprofit organizations." Property managers, in particular, worry that such a general category of recipients increases the likelihood of fraud. Many agencies are handling the concern by dealing with schools only.

Although the E.O. suggests that the Federal Executive Boards (FEBs) assist agencies in identifying recipients and the Government Services Administration (GSA) could serve this function, neither has played this role. The FEBs have limited organizational support for such an effort. Although enthusiastic individual officials at the FEBs and GSA have been able to help identify recipients, there has been no consistent response.

While the E.O. mentions the use of nonprofit reuse and recycling programs, agencies have not done this. As noted below, recycling would add significant value to the program. However, agency program managers cite two barriers to using recyclers. First, the managers are wary of fraud and the difficulties of identifying legitimate recycling organizations. Second, agencies may transfer possession of the computers to a recycler only at the direction of the recipient institution or organization.

Federal policymakers have been monitoring and responding to these issues. A working group, centered in the Executive Office of the President (EOP), has been meeting regularly, consulting with the property managers, and exploring solutions to concerns raised by agencies. GSA sponsored a forum for all the agencies on implementation in March 1997. Policymakers are attempting to improve the outreach and selection of recipients through (1) developing a web site that is accessible to all federal agencies, on which schools can register technical needs; (2) encouraging the private sector to donate transportation of computers outside geographic areas; and (3) tasking GSA with clarifying the definitions accompanying the E.O.

Lessons from Private and Public-Sector Computer Donation Programs

The experiences of corporate and previous federal agency programs point to lessons for addressing some of the barriers to implementing the E.O.

Transferring equipment in good working order is essential. While some schools and districts have repair capabilities, the majority of schools cannot use donations unless they are complete working systems.

Donation programs must be managed. The most effective programs in the private and public sectors received active management support; had clear objectives, approaches, and organizational implications; and received adequate staff time and resources.

Refurbishing and upgrading provide more and better equipment for schools. Recyclers can increase the yield of working surplus computers and often warrantee and/or upgrade the computers transferred to schools at a much lower cost than for equivalent new machines. Private-sector experience indicates that refurbishing and upgrading can double the yield of working computers from a given surplus stock.

Recycling organizations offer advantages, but other approaches to refurbishing also seem feasible. While recycling organizations have the potential for operating on a larger scale, alternative models exist, such as vocational education programs run by school districts or other work-training approaches.

Conclusions and Recommendations

In our judgment, the early implementation of E.O. 12999 is proceeding in a reasonable manner. Inevitably, there are problems raised by the implementing agencies' disparate nature and by the geographic locations of the computers, but the agencies and the EOP appear to be working to deal with them.

As they proceed, the agencies and the EOP may want to consider the following four recommendations:

  1. To address agency uncertainty and concerns, federal policymakers should clarify the status of preexisting transfer programs, the relative priority given to EZ/EC schools, and the definition of educational nonprofit organization.
  2. To increase the yield of the program significantly, federal policymakers should explore ways to encourage the use of organizations capable of refurbishing and upgrading equipment, including addressing concerns about title transfer and the identification of acceptable recycling organizations.
  3. To maximize the usefulness of the computers to participating schools, federal policymakers should continue to explore ways to support a more-informed selection process between the agencies transferring the equipment and the schools acquiring the equipment.
  4. To make the program more beneficial to schools, federal agencies should ensure that only working computers configured in sets are transferred (unless transferring equipment to or via a recycling or refurbishing program).

While it is beyond the scope of E.O. 12999, the EOP should also consider the value of actions taken to enhance the usefulness of E.O. 12999 to donation and recycling programs more generally. For example, the web site currently under development for the federal government could be expanded to include private donors. In addition, the federal government might work with states to develop programs for certifying organizations providing refurbishing and upgrades.

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  • [1] Because there is no centralized reporting by agencies of automated data processing inventories, hard data on numbers of federal computers are difficult to obtain.
  • [2] Code of Federal Regulations 44 CFR 101-43.3, Utilization of Excess (Cost and Proceeds).

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