TechAmerica issues call for action on procurement

The industry group is calling on the Office of Management and Budget, government agencies and government contractors to take steps to improve collaboration, risk management and program management and make wider use of agile development techniques.

Industry group TechAmerica has launched an effort to reform government procurement that calls for actions to be taken by the Office of Management and Budget, government agencies and contractors.

The crux of the recommendations, called Government Technology Opportunity in the 21st Century, is to improve communications between government and industry, improve risk management, increase the use of agile development, and create a professional class of program managers.

Although none of the recommendations are new, the report outlines a 33-step process and a timeline for accomplishing each step.

There have been many reports over the years recommending changes to the acquisition process, so TechAmerica’s approach involved reviewing those reports and determining why so little action has been taken, said Phil Bond, president of TechAmerica.

What the new report does is identify the steps necessary to achieve success, he added.

The 33 steps are specific. For instance, step one says the Office of Management and Budget should publish a common definition of agile development by the end of the first quarter of fiscal 2011, or Dec. 31, 2010. OMB and industry should also begin advocating the use of agile development by that date.

The last recommendation has a due date in fiscal 2012, and it calls for assigning program managers to projects from start to finish.

To create the report, TechAmerica and its research arm, TechAmerica Foundation, convened a 31-member commission drawn from industry, academia and government. Linda Gooden, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Solutions, and Steve Kelman, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, were the commission's co-chairmen.

“We asked four questions: What is the nature of the problem? What should be done about it? Where efforts failed in the past? And what should our action plan be to move forward?” Bond said.

The impetus for the group’s work was OMB's recent freeze on spending for a large number of government projects. Rather than kick off a lobbying effort, TechAmerica decided to launch the procurement project, he said.

Gooden focused on the idea of engagement between industry and its government customers, something that is particularly challenging in today’s political environment.

The report calls for actions by OMB, agencies and industry because “we must work collaboratively to move forward,” she said.

One way to improve risk management is to create a no-fear zone where contractors and customers can talk about problems and risks without fear of punishment, Gooden said.

OMB will need to take the first step by reassuring agencies that talking with industry is a good idea, particularly before a contract enters the request-for-proposals stage, she said. “That will help clarify things for people who want cover,” Gooden added.

For industry’s part, companies will need to put forward technical experts who can answer questions and help agencies identify solutions, “not just send them capture managers and marketing people,” Kelman said.

Federal acquisition regulations allow agencies to negotiate with contractors, which means talking and exchanging ideas, just as commercial entities do, he said. But too many federal employees think it is illegal, he added.

Kelman and Gooden also voiced strong support for using agile development and breaking projects into smaller increments, each with a deliverable result.

Another major recommendation is to make program management a career path in government, in part through the creation of a Program Management Leadership Academy.

The government has too much of a “doer” culture and needs to development more of a “manager” culture, Kelman said.

Some of the changes are crucial for U.S. competitiveness, said Chris Yukins, an associate professor of government contracts law at George Washington University and a vice chairman of the commission. The changes will help create a more flexible procurement system that will put more emphasis on value and not just lowest price, he added.

Another reason we need to create a better and more efficient procurement system is because there is a “budget Armageddon coming,” he said.

The government will likely be forced to make deep and painful budget cuts, and one way to do that would be to privatize some government functions, much like the United Kingdom has proposed doing, Yukins said.

“If we go that way, there will be more private funding of projects,” he said. “And private funders will not tolerate how things are done currently.”

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