Buy Lines: Reasonable concerns could lead to unreasonable solutions

Stan Soloway

In 2001, Congress directed the Defense Department to create processes to better oversee its services acquisitions. A year later, Congress changed the rules under which DOD can access and use General Services Administration schedules and multiple-award contracts.

Last year, Congress directed the inspectors general of GSA and DOD to review the GSA Client Support Centers to ensure they are adhering to regulations and have appropriate management and financial controls.

Some of these provisions represent compromises reached only after long and difficult debate. In their final states, they are grounded largely in common sense and good public policy. It will take time for their cumulative effect to be fully evident -- unfortunately, the Senate has decided not to wait.

Section 802 of the Senate version of the fiscal 2006 defense authorization would require DOD and the military to create new, central organizations, called Contract Support Acquisition Centers, which will be responsible for acquisitions in all services.

While it is clear that the Defense Department, like the rest of the federal government, does have challenges in managing services procurements, this provision could have significant adverse effects without substantively improving the department's acquisition or management of services.

For one thing, the creation of Contract Support Acquisition Centers would raise serious questions about the role and mission of the departmental and military service acquisition executives.

Within their respective departments, these people are statutorily charged with all aspects of acquisition, including products and services, which are often intertwined. They have taken their own significant steps to increase leadership and management attention to the acquisition of services.

For example, the Air Force created a Program Executive Officer of Combat and Mission Support, with authority over most major Air Force services acquisitions.

The Navy is creating Centers of Excellence in key services acquisition areas and has -- shortsightedly, many of us argue -- made it more difficult for Navy activities to procure services from other than Navy contracting vehicles.

The Marine Corps is taking similar steps, and the Army has established the Army Contracting Agency, which has significant responsibility for services procurements.

Just as there are vast differences in procuring aircraft carriers, fighter jets and tanks, a fact recognized by the defense acquisition structure, the same hold true for acquiring many services. They are not monolithic, although the legislation would treat them otherwise.

In and of themselves, neither the organizational steps being taken nor those proposed in the Senate bill would improve the acquisition or management of services. As always, the key lies in the quality of training and support given to a work force that is being asked to manage in an increasingly complex world.

One can have the best structure imaginable, but without the right work-force skills, the structure will fail.

Therein lie the biggest problems with the Senate's proposal. Given the efforts under way, forcing a single organizational design and process on the department and each of its major components is not the answer. Nor does the answer lie in other provisions of the Senate bill that would further constrain the flexibilities available to the acquisition work force.

Let's face it: It's the people, stupid. No amount of structural tinkering will change that reality. That's where we all ought to be focusing our attention, rather than drawing narrow organizational boxes or further limiting innovation or flexibility.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council. His e-mail is

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