Acquisition reform: Get onboard or weep at the dock

Buylines | Policies, strategies and trends to watch

"The issue is not abuse per se, but a workforce that is overloaded, under-resourced and often under-trained for the missions it has been given." Stan Soloway

Anyone surprised that acquisition issues have been an early focus of attention for the new Congress? Didn't think so. Dig in, because they're likely to continue to be so. The Armed Services committees of both houses already have held acquisition hearings, with more to follow; the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has scheduled several days of hearings this month.

Despite the provocative terms used in the hearing announcements ? phrases such as "contracting abuses" are becoming everyday fare ? the hearings themselves haven't yet uncovered anything shockingly new. For instance, testimony from both the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Department Inspector General at a Jan. 17 Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing on services contracting was based almost entirely on past studies and investigations.

Moreover, a close read of the GAO testimony suggests strongly what some of us have been arguing for some time: The issue is not abuse per se, but a workforce that is overloaded, under-resourced and often under-trained for the missions it's been given.

In a Jan. 18 House Armed Services Committee hearing, there was an interesting exchange between the DOD Inspector General, Comptroller General and committee members about the meaning of "waste," in the context of "fraud, waste and abuse" in contracting. While some viewed the exchange as a humorous rhetorical exercise, others regarded it as the beginning of the type of discussion that needs to take place. Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., has asked four oversight agencies to develop a common definition of wasteful spending.

It would be most helpful to have a meaningful discussion of the differences in meaning and cause between waste and abuse. It would benefit committee members, agency officials and industry, which thus far has been noticeably excluded from any hearings, to discuss how a wide range of factors, from workforce issues and mission requirements to budgetary uncertainty, have affected the ability of agencies and their contractors to most effectively and efficiently meet government's needs.

The Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 31 held a hearing on alleged contracting abuses, focusing on the report of the Acquisition Advisory Panel established by Section 1423 of the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003. The hearing zeroed in on interagency contracting and the problems the panel identified therein. Many of those problems, including pre-solicitation planning, a disciplined acquisition strategy and similar matters, are far from unique to interagency agreements. And the panel's report contains mostly administrative recommendations, many of which already are being implemented and are part of the recent agreement between DOD and GSA. But such context did not play much of a role in the hearing.

The hearing also focused on the panel's highly controversial recommendation that the statutory definition of a commercial item be significantly narrowed. That recommendation, which did not achieve anything close to consensus among panel members, is strongly opposed by industry. Most of its promoters are involved with weapons systems programs on which the question of whether commercial item designations were appropriately used is open to debate.

But the panel's charter was to look at services, not hardware. In the services environment, there is precious little evidence that the commercial item designation has been widely, or even significantly, misused. Nonetheless, that is the impression, sans data, that the panel's report leaves. It also is the message that the committee likely took away.

Acquisition oversight hearings will continue in Congress well into the spring. Those in industry and government who recognize the importance of ensuring a balanced dialogue and reasoned policies have a lot of work to do to correct the information imbalance. Absent such information, Congress may well take precipitous action, the effects of which will be felt long after hearings conclude.

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

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