Acquisition reform: Where do you start?

There are today no fewer than six significant acquisition review/reform efforts underway.

They include:

  • A major effort being jointly undertaken by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
  • The Defense Department’s  reviews of high-cost/low-value compliance and reporting requirements and soon to be released Better Buying Power 3.0.
  • A “bottom-up” acquisition review directed by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
  • A continuing effort to develop IT acquisition reform legislation in the Senate
  • The recently launched OMB crowdsourcing effort focused on improving acquisition.

Obviously, there will be a lot of overlap even as each (hopefully) seeks to break some new ground. After all, there shouldn’t be much debate about the need to substantially transform the acquisition landscape.

Likewise, there should be equally little debate that federal acquisition practices and policies have regressed in recent years. Thus, I have a suggestion: Let’s start by first seeking to reverse that regression and then focus on the keys to progress.

The foundation put in place by many of the reforms of the last 20 years has either never been adequately built upon or has simply been allowed to atrophy. Yet it remains the critical building block for the future of acquisition, no matter how much it evolves over the next two decades.

Just consider some of the core themes of earlier reforms. Communications and collaboration are, by general agreement, less robust than they used to be, let alone need to be.  How else to explain that three of DOD’s top acquisition officials made communication and collaboration cornerstones of recent speeches on the state and future of acquisition?

Debriefings, a crucial tool for both government and industry, and also a key element of earlier reforms, are now all too often pro-forma if they even occur and the quality has been in steady decline.

Performance-based acquisition, the focus of major efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s, has been all but abandoned. In fact, when recently asked why his component did not use statements of objectives and performance based requirements more frequently on services contracts, a top acquisition official said “Wow. I’ve never heard of doing that for services.”

“Wow” is right.

Then there is everyone’s favorite bogeyman: lowest price, technically acceptable (LPTA) awards.

Despite protestations to the contrary by some DOD officials, others, including Undersecretary Frank Kendall and the head of contracting at Naval Sea Systems Command, have recently acknowledged that the department too often relies on LPTA strategies where their use is inappropriate.

But beyond the discussion of how and where to apply such strategies, we also continue to hear the refrain “LPTA is just one end of the best value continuum.” 

Let’s be clear.  In practicality, it really isn’t, since the term “LPTA” legally locks the government into a decision matrix that mandates award only to the lowest-priced bidder deemed “minimally technically acceptable” with no flexibility allowed. 

Almost by definition, “best value” implies that one trades off relative risk, performance history or other factors against even the most minimal cost differentials. Such factors can, of course, be included in the definition of “technically acceptable,” but in practice that is rarely done.

Finally, there is the ongoing, clarion call for the government to capitalize on “best commercial practices and capabilities,” also core elements of virtually every acquisition reform initiative since the late 1980s.

Beside repeated, unsuccessful efforts by DOD to dramatically change, and even eviscerate, current laws and regulations governing commercial items and services that were put in place during the major reforms of the 1990s, the government’s unique compliance costs, including on commercial items and services, are only growing and becoming more significant barriers to innovation and commercial practices.

And little progress has been made in developing workforce awareness and understanding of commercial business risk identification and management, which is the core of a business relationship. Do you want to access the full array of commercial technology? This is a really good place to start.

As became clear in both a 2012 PSC Acquisition Survey of federal acquisition leaders and at a recent Defense Acquisition University-sponsored conference, the traditional workforce development system and policy apparatus remains well behind the eight ball when it comes to preparing acquisition professionals for the marketplace of today, let alone the future—in which the pace of technology change on all levels and in all fields is only going to accelerate and fundamentally change the ways in which we work.

So, where to start with today’s acquisition reforms?

Let’s start with the basics, including the still relevant core themes of earlier efforts. You might say we need to re-reform, and then be ready to transform.

About the Author

Stan Soloway is a former deputy undersecretary of Defense and former president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council. He is now the CEO of Celero Strategies.

Reader Comments

Thu, May 1, 2014 Brick Hanrahan DC area

Well said.

Tue, Apr 29, 2014 Joseph Mishbuccha Local

Stan--you know the history extends back more than 40 years, not 20. In shelf-feet, albeit a dated measure, the girth of govt and govt-private acquisition reforms studies is more than 30 feet, by my measure. There's been some progress, but there's been sliding back, e.g., the industry is now more concentrated, not less (by the smarter measures--you know them), there is less (repeat: less) competition, and, sadly, a lot more waste and abuse. I don't know about fraud, but fraud must be dwarfed by the idiocy that leads to still-born programs that were then fubar'd, e.g., DHS SBI and the Army's new vehicle program a few years back. It continues today in troubled IT programs and projects. The taxpayers pay each time, and the companies don't suffer much at all. It doesn't matter, because their staff drift around the industry--the more senior, experienced onces are combed out because of cost. The problem is the institutional foundation. The gubberment can't manage very much, but it is a rare company or FFRDC--on a good day--that can manage well, also. And with "reform" leading to more fragmentation and subcontracting, acquisition disasters are being brewed constantly. No one has written the real contracting debacle of the ACA website. The sequel would be the account of contracting's role in all the upstream "policy" work by noted nonprofit and profit making consultants. It goes on and on. And, though services now are more like 2/3 of the contract dollars, services programs and their purveyors are producing all of the services contracting wonderments such as the F-35, Osprey, Littoral Combat Ships, the Coast Guard recapitalization, etc. Oh, look the companies populating both hardware and services sub sectors. They are the same ones, pretty much, with FFRDCs on the side or as chasers. As Casey Stengel once said after the Yankees had a really bad run and some memorably bad games: "Can anyone here play this game?"

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