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Is Procurement Reform Possible Or Illusory?

This article originally appeared on the Public Spend Forum.

There has been much talk about procurement reform over the last few decades, and has been a hot topic for the last several years. Many initiatives are ongoing, most notably the Section 809 Panel for the Department of Defense. In its initial report, new policies are not being proposed, no new laws or regulations. There is actually a focus on elimination of what bogs down the ability for the desired; speed, agility, and a renewed sense of mission.

However, much talk of “acquisition reform” revolves around a discussion of what is wrong with federal procurement. This discussion is about what needs to happen if we are going to keep up with modern technology, secure our aged technological platforms, and overall improve the performance of government.

An excellent example of this type of thinking comes from Orion Hindawi, CEO and co-founder of Tanium, in a recent piece on Federal News Radio. Although I completely agree with his positions, the talk of “acquisition reform” never centers on the root cause of the issues, and why we are seemingly going in circles when it comes to federal buying.

If one wants to get at the heart of the matter, then required reading should be the guest blog of Steve Kelman’s The Lectern on Federal Computer Week.  David Eaves, Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Director, discusses why reform efforts may prove to be fruitless, and even dangerous.

 Mr. Eaves writes:

…Procurement is often cited as the big bad bogeyman holding us back. If only we fixed procurement, there would be more choice, better vendors and less failure among government IT projects.

I don’t buy it.


We can get better choice, better vendors and less failure without reform. I’m not saying procurement is perfect. But the benefits of reforming procurement are not needed and the dangers are significant…

So what is the issue then?

…My observations have been that learning to navigate procurement is one of the key elements that differentiates successful from unsuccessful companies in the government space. Sadly, it can sometimes become the core skill of success, more relevant than even the ability to deliver an effective product or service…

Here is where we start to narrow our focus about what the real issues are, since we are talking about culture, and why this culture has created a system that is complex, slow, and does not normally satisfy needs.

Part of this situation needs to start looking beyond simply blaming contracting officers for poor performance. I never understood how this strategy would be effective. How can one possibility be expected to be “innovative” when you are not provided any resources our support for doing so? Performance metrics are misaligned with objectives, all actions are focused on simple compliance and not taking any unnecessary risks, and servicing the customer as a business advisor is often seen as less than ideal.

Leadership is a major issue. There needs to be more knowledge transfer to demonstrate to acquisition leaders that the reason things are so bad might be the reflection in the mirror. Cultivating a culture for people to really think outside the box is a good thing. The current procurement rules allow for innovation, and more commercial practices, as discussed in the Office of Science Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget Innovative Contracting Case Studies, a document that describes several ways federal agencies are getting more innovation per taxpayer dollar – all under existing laws and regulations.

A major shift in collaborating with industry is also in order. As Mr. Eaves points out, government personnel who can identify good technology and practices from bad ones is limited. It really is asking a lot of public servants who rarely buy technology, or who are not experts, to be able to work on this ever-changing landscape without specialization. Therefore, industry must be able to step in and help government understand the technology and practices that provide a mutually satisfactory outcome.
Win-win is always at the top of industry’s mind, regardless of the unfortunate stigmas associated with the industry-government relationship.

Finally, back to Mr. Eaves:

…The reality is procurement law allows for a fair degree of flexibility. Procurement lore does not…

…This culture change that USDS engaged in is not easy, but changing lore is probably easier and more effective than changing law…

The U.S. Digital Service TechFar handbook, is an excellent guide on procuring IT in a flexible and innovative manner, and a culture-hacking tool. It can be done, all within the existing framework, if there is a will to be better buyers, and the desire to change the status quo.

Many in industry believe that acquisition reform efforts will have a net positive outcome, that will lower barriers to entry, and allow them more opportunities. Mr. Eaves believes this to be fantasy, and I agree.

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