Acquisition efforts on a collision course
Stark disconnect exists between legislative efforts, agency implementation
Rep. Darryl Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, will introduce this month the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA), the first major IT reform legislation since the groundbreaking Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.
Similarly, it is expected that Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, will also introduce a significant IT acquisition reform bill.
While the two bills will have substantive differences, they will share a basic objective— fostering an IT acquisition capability in government that enables access to the best solutions at the best price, through an acquisition process that is founded in best commercial practices.
That is the right objective. But achieving that objective faces a huge, often ignored, hurdle. Even as the government seeks to gain access to the best technology solutions through the most diverse array of commercial providers, current acquisition policy and practice is actually headed in the opposite direction.
For example, in the commercial world, companies distinguish between commodity IT and more complex requirements. They understand that one size does not fit all and when a product or service should be bought largely on the basis of price versus where the complexity demands a more rigorous, value-based, approach.
At the Feb. 27 House hearing on FITARA, at which I had the privilege of testifying, both Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings acknowledged this critical dichotomy. Yet, throughout the government, we are seeing just the opposite—a default to acquiring almost everything as if it were a commodity, including the overuse of lowest price, technically acceptable (LPTA) acquisition strategies and an imbalanced emphasis on price at the expense of outcomes.
We are also witnessing a worrisome growth in government-unique compliance requirements that are unknown and unnecessary in the commercial marketplace.
In a commercial, fixed-price contract, would you allow, let alone expect, the customer to demand access to and question all of your cost details when you complete the required work and submit an invoice for the agreed upon price? Of course not.
But that is happening routinely across government today. And what about audits? At least two major companies are considering dropping one or more of their GSA schedules because the General Services Administration is demanding audit access to the companies’ full book of commercial business, something that no commercial entity would ever tolerate—and which, even in the government marketplace, is contrary to established law and policy.
Then there are the Defense Department’s repeated attempts to get statutory changes made to the definition of a "commercial item or service." Those changes would cause many commercial firms that only entered the government market after the acquisition reforms of the 1990s to quickly, and necessarily, exit.
In short, we have a collision of trends. Recognizing that the government must be able to access the full array of solutions, Congress is renewing its efforts to legislate smart, commercial-like behavior, while too many agency acquisition organizations and leaders are going the other way.
Dan Gordon, the immediate past administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, suggests this bias is in large part driven by years of the acquisition community being “beaten down.” Clearly, budget chaos is also playing a big role, as is fear of protests. But whatever the reason, if the goal of FITARA or Sen. Carper’s legislation is to truly adopt commercial best practices, this dominant and disturbing trend must be reversed.
In the end, it is as much a question of sustained agency leadership messaging and well constructed workforce development and training, as it is a question of new legislative authority. We need to objectively assess whether federal acquisition and technology leadership consistently communicates the right messages.
And we need to objectively assess whether our workforce development efforts, in which the government invests tens of millions of dollars a year, are in fact teaching effectively that which needs to be taught.
Only then will the legislative objectives set forth in the House and Senate bills be truly achievable.