Buy Lines | Flowcharts as a procurement management tool

One word: Flowcharts.

Yes, flowcharts: pictorial representations of business process, should accompany the Federal Acquisition Regulations and agency supplements to increase compliance, competition, transparency.

No growing business would try to operate without documented business processes, illustrated by flowcharts, but when it comes to the many business processes where taxpayer money is spent, such process documents are hard to come by.

It's ironic that we have a set of impeccably organized, precisely documented processes, but no pictures to remind us of all the if-then logic built into the system.

As both buyers and sellers, we all need a cheat sheet to remind us of the many steps in acquisition planning, choosing the proper contracting method and conducting competition consistent with that method.

I bring this up because during this period of acquisition oversight and scrutiny, I'm disturbed by what seems to be an increasing lack of consistency from one contracting shop to another. It appears as if contracting officers are taking bits and pieces from different parts of the FAR and creating their own rules. For instance, I'm seeing buyers mix schedule-ordering procedures with agency indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts and then throwing in the requirement for a sole-source justification for good measure. This lack of consistency is confusing and ultimately costly for all involved. It is not the way to run a system involving hundreds of thousands of people and tens of billions of dollars.

I've spent 15 years or so studying acquisition regulations as part of doing business with the government. I read "Federal Contracts Daily" every morning. I've taken numerous classes, seminars and workshops in addition to leading classes, seminars and workshops to help others understand the government's processes. Although I enjoy parsing the arcane language of federal procurement, I'm concerned that our procurement system will continue to become more costly as it becomes more legalistic. When a business process becomes more about craftily worded clauses, terms of art and exceptions than getting the business done, something is wrong.

My antidote is what all businesses do to improve efficiencies: Document the business process for all to see.

My hunch is that there would be fewer rules because the impact of implementation would be immediately obvious. Congressional staffers eager to make their mark on the procurement system might think twice about crafting language to address this perceived ill if they had to show how it would fit into the procurement process. I believe the rule writers, charged with implementing the wishes of Congress, would generate more enlightened comments to proposed rules if they were required to illustrate graphically how the proposed rule change would affect the procurement process.

Requiring lawmakers and rule writers to create a sheet of music that reduces the legal language to business-process flowcharts that would accompany the regulations would help us all stay consistent with the rules. If the oversight community had to wrestle legal language into a meaningful business process diagram, true competition would increase, transparency would improve, processes could be automated, cycle times and cost would be reduced, and eventually, I predict, the rules would become simpler and more businesslike for the benefit of all, except maybe for someone like me who earns a living by keeping all the detail front of mind.

Steve Charles is a co-founder of immixGroup Inc., a government business consulting firm in McLean, Va. E-mail him at steve_charles@immixgroup.com.

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