I recently read an article from a respected source proposing to “blow up” the current acquisition process because it currently takes too long to deliver goods and services and doesn’t provide what everyone needs. While this makes great headlines, generates discussion, and spotlights the concern, it doesn’t constructively solve anything.
It’s easy to give sound-bite summaries of problems and solutions, while avoiding the hard analysis necessary to truly understand the issues and the difficult solutions required to address them. A very wise person recently told me that contract managers must possess competency in project and relationship management. Those same skills must also be included in the skills sets of program managers, users, and agency/company executives, along with strong leadership qualities.
Current laws, regulations, and bureaucracy are not responsible for good and bad results, but are instead the environment that visionary, task-oriented, knowledgeable, effective leaders with strong communication and interpersonal skills are given to work with. “Blowing up” the system would still leave an altered, but still unchanged, environment in its wake.
Satisfying needs with resources not available in-house still requires knowing what and when resources are necessary (i.e., “requirements definition”); where to find them (i.e., “market research”); the best way to procure them (i.e., “acquisition planning”); how to pay for them (i.e., “budget requests,” “funds appropriation,” and “allocation”); who is the best source is to provide the necessary resources (i.e., “source selection,” “past performance,” “responsibility,” “responsiveness,” “sole-source justification,” etc.); and how to ensure delivery is on time and is in fact what was asked for (i.e., “contract price,” “terms and conditions,” “use of incentives,” “changes,” “risk mitigation,” “termination procedures,” etc.).
Concluding that the process must be “blown-up” is a wrongful conclusion for a system with a lack of clear responsibility and accountability. This isn’t unique to government acquisition, but can be systemic to government operations generally. If program or contracting executives are to be held accountable, then agency superiors and legislative oversight authorities are responsible to clearly delegate and articulate that responsibility—either support those executives and stand aside, or replace them as necessary. This includes those responsible for requirements definition, resource allocation, technical oversight, legal support, etc.—provide the resources to execute or admit that it can’t be done. Those implementing satisfying contract requirements cannot be held responsible if the organizational culture is one of risk adversity and diffused responsibility. In this environment, contract managers—or the “acquisition process” as a whole—too often become the scapegoats for system failure, but they are not the cause.
Problems within government contracting include technical and interpersonal skills, but perhaps more important, organizational structure and leadership. Great private-sector organizations are led by great leaders. They also must cope with constant change in markets, whether from changing competition, technologies, demographics, consumer tastes, or society. History provides examples of those that adapted well and those that didn’t. The same is true with government. Some agencies and their respective leaders adapt well to our democratic government environment, with its constitutionally intended system of redundant, overlapping review mechanisms; on the other hand, some don’t. Attributing contracting problems to a faceless acquisition “bureaucracy” that needs to be “blown up” is an attractive, but nonproductive answer to a difficult problem and doesn’t solve anything.
Unless someone is suggesting we change our system of government and the methods by which funding is provided to government entities and how its leadership is appointed, our acquisition system simply exemplifies the positive and negative attributes of that system.
Michael P. Fischetti
National Contract Management Association