By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Buying fast, buying better

Compusearch, the provider of procurement automation solutions, sponsored a session on The Future of Acquisition earlier this week -- tied to the launch of a new release of their flagship software package -- featuring a keynote address by Jacques Gansler (formerly chief acquisition official at DOD and currently at the University of Maryland).

The event also featured four distinguished senior people in contracting: Elliott Branch of the Navy, Soray Correa of DHS, Frank Spampinato of FAA, and Dee Lee, formerly with DOD and now with Fluor.  (Full disclosure: I am on the Compusearch Board of Advisors.)

One of the issues that came up during the discussion was whether contracting people were putting too much of an emphasis on buying things quickly rather than buying them using proper procedures. Lee noted during the discussion that there was a danger that the government had gotten better at "quickly buying the wrong things" because not enough time was being taken to think about requirements before the government proceeded to contracting. Branch noted that it was a good thing, for example, that DOD had taken a several month "time out" on work on the Joint Strike Fighter to examine problems that system development was running in to.
From the audience, I raised a cautionary note about these statements. I didn't disagree with the statements per se, but I was concerned that the last thing senior government contracting executives wanted to do was send new hires or program customers a signal that contracting was not concerned about, and committed to, speed and urgency in the buying process. Contracting people need to show commitment to the mission, and it is a good thing, not a bad thing, that program customers are eager to have the mission move forward as quickly as feasible.

There is no better recipe for creating suspicion between contracting folks and program folks than for the latter to suspect contracting people don't care about the mission. There are not many program folks who would think that contracting folks are addicted to speed, and that is not a good thing. And such a signal would also be devastating for building the right culture among new hires. At the same time, contracting folks should work to point out to program folks that spending more time upfront thinking about the contracting strategy, communicating with industry, clarifying RFP language, and thinking sensibly about requirements, will likely reap strong returns for the mission in terms of a better choice of vendors, better vendor performance, and reduced misunderstandings and post-award delays.
The panelists agreed with my points, and said they by no means meant to signal a lack of commitment to program missions or a lack of understanding that programs rightly felt a sense of urgency. And surely each one of the them is strongly mission-oriented. Indeed, Soraya Correa and Frank Spampinato expressed support for co-locating contracting and program folks together -- and Spampinato said this had worked really well at the FAA.
But there has always been a current in the contracting community -- in retreat mostly for the last 20 years -- that sees themselves in the first instance as a police function vis-a-vis program people. The Air Force, mistakenly in my view, has moved recently in the opposite direction from that advcoated by Correa and Spampinato, moving contracting folks back into a contracting stovepipe.  This is an issue contracting needs to think about.

Yes, a part of contracting is an independent quasi-regulatory function, and there should continue to be an independent office of contracting folks to exercise that function. But the heart and soul of contracting should be program and mission support. Those people should care about buying fast, they should be physically or otherwise closely located with  program people, and their concerns about buying "right" should be in the context of the best way to support the mission. It would be a shame to return to the dark days of the contracting police.

Posted on Dec 03, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Tue, Dec 7, 2010 Vern Edwards

You are absolutely right about co-locating contracting personnel with program personnel in program-oriented organizations. That is the way it was when I came into contracting with the Air Force, and I always enjoyed that arrangement better than being stuck in a separate building far from the action. If nothing else, it's more fun. But don't be too sanctimonious about program people and mission support. I'm a mission guy, all the way, but some of the demand for speed on the part of contracting is due to slackness, procrastination and poor planning by the program people, followed by a "We gotta hurry" attitude after a purchase request is sent to contracting. Contracting should be efficient and take no more time than necessary to do their work. One of our problems is that not enough contracting people know the rules well enough to know when and how they can innovate, and they don't have a deep enough grasp of key concepts to innovate effectively. Instead of knowledge and adaptability, what we have is rote procedural practice and inflexibility. But program people too often have no respect for law and regulation. Are bureaucracies free to do whatever they like on grounds of mission expediency? Really? How about the IRS? How about the Department of Justice? I don't think so. The notion that there is too much emphasis on rules and not enough on speed is insupportable. The history of acquisition over the past 20 years shows that contracting people have been all too willing to twist or break the rules in the interests of speed. All that has gotten us is more rules. Somewhere there is a middle ground. Program people must understand that they must execute their programs within the law. Contracting people must know the law and the key concepts of their business well enough to be able to innovate and find a way to fulfill the mission without breaking the rules.

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