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Blow Up the System?

NCMAExecutiveDirector

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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

Executive Director

National Contract Management Association




10 Comments


In fairness to your respected source, the President also used the words "blow up" in connection with IT procurement. (S)He may have been borrowing that phrase from the man at the top . . .

Is a link to the article available?

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The current buzzword is "disruptive innovation" which I believe is as good a way as any for tackling the cultural and leadership challenges within and without the Federal government acquisition system. (And that "system" probably doesn't even qualify as a system.)

On the other hand, "blow the sucker up and start fresh" doesn't sound too far off the mark, either. And I say this as a 30-year veteran of that "system" (albeit from the contractor side). We need the right people with the right training and knowledge, with authority to make the necessary decisions. And we need to hold them personally accountable for those decisions. We have precious little of any of that in today's "system" right now.

H2H

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With respect to "disruptive innovation," read the article in the June 23 New Yorker magazine by Jill Lepore, "The Disruption Machine." She trashes the idea as B-school hype based on bad evidence.

"Disruption is a theory of change founded on panic, anxiety, and shaky evidence."

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Vern,

FYI, I just saw your comment in the FAR and Innovation thread after I posted my comment, above.

And I largely agree with the assessment (though the New Yorker is hardly academia), which I why I called the term a "buzzword."

And can we agree that just about ALL B-School theories, when distilled down, turn out to be over-hyped theories founded on panic, anxiety and shaky evidence?

H2H

P.S. (I had occasion to interact with Art Laffer on a professional level, once.)

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And can we agree that just about ALL B-School theories, when distilled down, turn out to be over-hyped theories founded on panic, anxiety and shaky evidence?

Amen, Brother.

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I have been hearing for years that FAR is to blame for poor IT contracts and that it needs to be changed. I always respond "please identify for me in FAR what the problem is" and I never get a response.

That being said I would like to see a hard copy of what FAR looked like in April of 1984 and look at it now. I am willing to guess that it was alot thinner. FAR has been used to codify social goals, codify and standardize acquisition methods, codify that which was part of agency suppliments, and become more continually more perscriptive under the assumption that it would make acquisition better.

Nobody that I have heard or read is proposing "blowing up" the process as you described above (from need identification to monitoring). What I have heard is the the regulations that outline that process is in need of a serious haircut, that program offices need to be more accountable to scruitiny, that COs can't be the ones to hang out to dry when the IG/GAO, etc...

It reminds me driving in Maryland. I use to complain about Maryland drivers (ok...I still do) until it dawned on me that they have been conditioned to drive the way they do through speed cameras and laws that contradict activities happening elsewhere (left lane is for passing...so speed the hell up and quit acting like the start of a NASCAR race with 4 cars wide all going 60 on 95!!!). I digress...but my point stands. COs are conditioned by rules and their environment as Maryland drivers are to theirs.

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The FAR bureaucracy has issued 238 Federal Acquisition Circulars since the FAR took effect on April 1, 1984. They have undoubtedly added many pages to the FAR. However, the main problem with FAR is not its thickness, or that it includes too many commands and prohibitions. The problems are:

1. its complexity,

2. the fact that it is very badly written, and

3. that in many cases it cannot be understood without resort to bid protest and contract case law, a messy body of writing that is produced through a process for which I have lost much respect over the years.

Still, it can be dealt with by people who think well, who have been properly prepared, and who act wisely. I'm not sure how many such people exist.

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As a foundational question, I think we have to ask whether DAU and the DAWIA Cert process properly prepare acquisition practitioners to understand the FAR's complexity and nuances, to think critically and apply the rules to the real-world situations they have to deal with, and to act with good faith in the face of stress and challenges to simply get the job done as fast as possible for the budget available.

Another foundational question would seem to be whether the current personnel system selects incoming acquisition professionals using the criteria upon which they will be judged as being successful (or not). If you are not selecting for critical thinking skills (for example) I don't see how you can expect your team to exhibit them during performance.

There may be more foundational questions but those are two that come to mind.

If you answer "no" to the above questions, then I don't see how you fix the system until you fix the foundational problems. I mean no disrespect to the Federal folks reading this; I do not subscribe to the "lazy Federal worker" stereotype because I've personally seen how hard most people work to get their jobs done. But as Vern as posted before, you can't fix people and culture problems by fixing processes.

You have to fix the people problems first and then let your good people fix the process problems. (That also involves listening to those people and moving forward on their ideas. The last time I remember such an openness to new ideas was the Kelman regime.)

Or, as I posted above, you can cut the Gordian knot. "Blow the sucker up" should be an alternative that is considered seriously instead of being dismissed out of hand.

H2H

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Hi, H2H

Talent identification is incredibly difficult even when there is a high salary on the line (which should focus the hirer's attention) and plenty of data about the candidate's performance (which should lead them to a correct choice).

Organizations have trouble picking a good CEO, Power Forward or investment banker with these advantages. I don't hold much hope for the humble Agency HR person working off of KSAs, a resume, one interview and possibly a reference check . . .

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Following up on Mr. Edwards FAR comment, the suggestion below was made in the CAO/CIO Councils' request for ideas to improve the procurement system last Spring:

Spring Cleaning for the FAR

The FAR needs a top to bottom scrubbing as well as some thought as to how its utility could be improved. Many sections of the FAR were developed years ago or pieced together from predecessor regulations dating back to the 60s when Federal procurement was supply-focused. Other sections of the FAR are a patchwork of concepts that, while "politically correct" at inception, no longer suit the needs of modern procurement and contracting practice. Still other sections reflect the ill-considered propensity of its drafters to embed Court, Board, and GAO interpretations and applications of regulations into the rules without determining whether that interpretation is desirable policy. Suggest that OFPP and the FARC commission a small group of recognized procurment experts and some out-of-the box thinkers to go through the entire document and recommend changes to clarify, better organize, re-vise, add, subtract, and otherwise re-think the regulatory scheme. This could include recommendations for statutory changes that have unnecessarily encumbered the system as well as consideration of the use of official commentary or explanatory notes as was done for the Uniform Commercial Code. Experts should include people like Ralph Nash and Vern Edwards as opposed to the usual folk who populate these commissions. Indeed, this would be a great way to capture and apply some of their wisdom before it is lost to the procurement community. Having once been responsible for the FAR, I have some insight into how it has been put together. It is time for a fresh look.

Whatever happened to all those suggestions by the way? Did I miss the announcement on what the Council's intend to do with them?

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