Buy Lines: 'Big A' acquisition is here to stay

Steve Charles

Policymakers in the acquisition community are using the term "big A" acquisition when discussing the need to improve everything from capability analysis to outcome measures, as opposed to contracting ? the "little a" of acquisition.

I was reminded of this "big A, little a" notion when the term was used during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee March 29 regarding how to fix the acquisition process for major weapon systems.

This is a process that, despite several reform efforts, is plagued by what Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) characterized in a statement as "rampant cost growth [and] an unconstrained requirements process, which delays fielding of new systems."

At the hearing, Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, who directed last year's Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment Panel, said fundamental changes need to be made to the Defense Department's requirements; planning, programming and budgeting; and acquisition processes, which together he referred to as the "big A" acquisition system.

We need "big A" acquisition processes to plan and deliver mission outcomes, but we also need "little a" acquisition to maintain public trust in the government's funding and contracting process.

Perhaps we need more than one word for all of this. In the absence of the "big A" modifier, we're back to "procurement," the word we superseded with "acquisition" during procurement reform of the mid 1990s.

Let's check the Federal Acquisition Regulation to see what these words mean today while we look for clues about this "big A, little a" business. In FAR Part 2 Definitions, we read: "Procurement" (see "acquisition"). Procurement is out, acquisition is in.

Turning to "Acquisition," we see a definition that covers the contracting process, not the sophisticated management activities that I hear the architects of "big A" acquisition discussing today. This is good, our thinking is evolving. Our language needs to keep pace.

This spring, along with the cherry blossoms, the scent of acquisition reform is wafting in the breeze here in Washington. That breeze is likely to stiffen a bit by midsummer upon delivery of the Acquisition Advisory Panel's reports to Congress. As one expert said during the March 29 hearing, it kind of smells like the early 1980s these days in that acquisition reform at the Defense Department once again is a topic of widespread concern and discussion.

We need to take a closer look at the taxonomy and terminology we use to codify and explain this multilayered, multifaceted, multiyear discipline we call acquisition, so that communicating about it among ourselves need not bring to mind Dr. Seuss or the Scarlet Letter.

Steve Charles is cofounder of immixGroup, a government business-consulting company in McLean, Va. Steve welcomes your comments at steve_charles@immixgroup.com.

About the Author

For the past two decades Mr. Charles has helped hundreds of technology manufacturers succeed in the government marketplace. His breadth and depth of expertise on every dimension of the government technology ecosystem provide technology manufacturers with a strategy and clear focus for the greatest success. Mr. Charles is adept at mapping technology product lifecycles and revenue models with appropriate channel and contract vehicle strategies in light of current procurement law, regulations and policy. He receives glowing reviews from the training workshops he facilitates to help sales teams understand the sales tactics needed to address each step in the government acquisition process. Mr. Charles is actively involved in government-industry associations including TechAmerica, ACT-IAC, Coalition for Government Procurement, and the National Contract Management Association. He meets regularly with leaders in government and industry to increase understanding and positive action. Mr. Charles co-authored The Inside Guide to the Federal IT Market, a how-to book for technology companies selling to the government. He is regular contributor to Washington Technology.

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