Are OTAs overused?

Top acquisition officials from DHS and DISA are worked that Other Transaction Authority procurement might be getting overused and will draw congressional scrutiny.

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A more-nimble and recently expanded acquisition vehicle is in danger of becoming an overused “go-to” solution for agencies -- and earning congressional scrutiny as a result -- two leading acquisition officials said.

“I hope we’re not talking about legislation for [Other Transaction Authorities],” Soraya Correa, the Department of Homeland Security’s chief procurement officer, said in remarks at a Nov. 8 AFFIRM panel. “I feel it’s in the air.”

Correa and Scott Stewart, technical director of procurement at the Defense Information Systems Agency, said they are concerned about overenthusiastic use of OTAs.

Congress authorized OTAs for agencies more widely two years ago in defense authorization legislation, procurement industry expert Larry Allen told FCW. However, he said, Congress didn’t want agencies to go overboard.

DHS and DISA officials have been carefully applying OTAs when the conditions are right, Correa and Stewart said, while also working to tamp down overenthusiastic acquisition managers looking for a quicker acquisition path.

“If somebody comes to us and says, ‘Hey, I want to do an OTA,’” Stewart said, “nine out of 10 times, we talk them out of it.” At the Defense Department, OTAs must meet specific requirements, such as basic, applied, advanced research and prototype projects. The authority can’t be used to develop everyday IT efforts such as a help desk application, he said.

Over-reliance on OTAs risks Congress imposing more limits, Allan said. “There’s definitely a danger of overuse,” he said. “Most companies and agencies approach OTAs responsibly,” but some see it as a shortcut.

The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, passed in August, has provisions that increased reporting and use-justification requirements for agencies using OTAs.

The change in leadership in the House of Representatives, said Allen, also could precipitate closer scrutiny from acquisition oversight committees. The new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), is skeptical of higher defense spending and could be looking to rein in acquisition, according to Allen, though he doubted OTA-specific legislation would top of the long list of issues Smith wants the committee to look at in the coming months.

In the meantime, Correa and Stewart advised agencies to use the transaction authority sparingly and appropriately.

“The [acquisition] requirements should drive you to an OTA. An OTA shouldn’t drive you to requirements,” said Correa.