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I was going to add this in a previous thread that dealt with prospective academic research topics, but then thought that it may be beneficial for this to serve as a stand alone discussion. Before I begin, I once again I thank everyone who had contributed to the previous thread. After some long though I wanted to bounce something else off the community to see if it would be something of interest as a prospective research topic, or as a point of discussion.

Innovation is repeated desire throughout the federal government, but most often it is in terms of schitcky promotions associated with technological desires/advances. It is, however, clearly addressed in my personal favorite FAR reference:

FAR 1.102-4(e) - “absence of direction should be interpreted as permitting the Team to innovate and use sound business judgment that is otherwise consistent with law and within the limits of their authority. Contracting officers should take the lead in encouraging business process innovations and ensuring that business decisions are sound.”

This gives a contract officer, and program office, alot of creative flexibility when it comes to addressing problems. Most COs, however, look at the FAR as a framework that is perscriptive, which is as it should be when applicable, but limits the ability for COs to look at problems differently and look for different ways to address them. This can be said to be a matter of framing and decision making that many academics (Daniel Khaneman, Herbert Simon, Nassim Taleb, and many others) have addressed.

To take it further, however, policy often makes the mistake of misapplying innovative contracting practices and making them a rule rather than admiring them for it being a successful exception. I think performance-based acquisitions is a prime example of this. My understanding of the development of PBA is that it was developed at a particular time, in a particular place, to address a particular problem. It worked brilliantly, and became a defacto rule/methodology for procurement...even when inapplicable. Post-success application aside, it is an example of a contracting innovation.

Other innovative methodologies exist, and many can be culled from the discussion board of this service. For example, establishing an open ordering arrangement under a BPA is an innovative concept that steers clear of the whole BPA under a BPA restriction. Leveraging FAR 51 deviaiton authority to address agency IT and wireless communication carrier needs is something that is to me is clear so long as it is framed and applied properly. GSA released a Request for Technical Capabilities (RFTC) that appeared to be an innovative approach that was neither a BPA nor a QVL.

What are people's thoughts on this generally? More specifically, can you think of other innovative applications of FAR? What are the some of the challenges to the application of innovation as it relates to COs?

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It isn't just contracting officers -- remember, every contracting officer has some oversight burden, and some contracting officers have a crushing oversight burden. Those oversight burdens tend to extinguish innovation.

Here's an example. In addition to being a contracting officer, I am also a husband. If I decide to take my wife to a steakhouse for Valentine's day, the documentation level and approval level are very low -- I consider my wife's interests and I make a decision and away we go are we're both happy. But imagine if I have to document my decision in writing and submti it to another person for review, like, my mother-in-law. Why not a fancy Italian restaurant? Why not a place with candles and romance? Did you compare all the menus and prices? Did you analyze the calorie implications of all possible choices? Pity the poor husband who has to put up with that oversight burden. Pity the poor contracting officer who is similarly situated. With my wife's support, I can tell my mother-in-law to leave us alone. But I can't tell all my overseers at work to go away -- I have to get their coordinations and concurrences and reviews and approvals.

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Roger that...and I agree with your characterization of this dilema. Program offices (the wife) cleraly have to be on board with an innovative approach. Some COs also have to deal with pre-approval from legal and IG offices (the in-laws). I would naively say that clear communication on what is being done and why can help alleviate some of this, but I agree that this is easier said than done in many cases. Thanks Ji20874.

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Here's a couple more examples. One concerns past performance. The concept is sound - use actual performance feedback in making selection decisions. But it quickly became a bureaucratic nightmare in implementaton. If you go in CPARS now, it's rare to see a company with marginal performance data and government employees are scared to death to provide candid and honest information.

Another is oral presentations. Again the concept sounds great. Perhaps the biggest potential benefit is finding out if the proposed staffing or a specific technical approach really has the ability or capability the proposal says it does. A "pop quiz" is great. But how often do you see it done? Most oral presentations now are more trouble than they are worth to conduct, much less evaluate.

In both instances, the government took two ideas and formalized them into almost meaningless practices.

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Thanks FF. I actually like your characterization of "formalized meaninglessness." In the public administration literature academics contend that there exsists such as thing as "organizational innovation." I dove pretty deep into it during my quals and it it appeared to me to be a sort of contrived academic hooey. I can clearly see an argument that organizations (leadership) should support innovation conceptually, which is a part of "organziational innovation." There is then the assessment of the impact or decision to apply innovation across-the-board, which bleeds into beuraucratic decision making (not saying this judgementally....just the structure of public administration). Leadership then applies the innovation across the agency, or organization, or regulation, in terms of a standardized, formalized structure, which is a description of change management. That, according to some, is the essence of "organizational innovation." It is this last part that you hit on directly, because the application is absent the conditions that made it appropriate in the first place. Thus formalized meaningless.

Theories aside...I would have to do some digging in terms of when oral solicitations were first used, when they were formalized in FAR, and how that limits their application now. Thanks for the thought provoking response FF.

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I'm sorely tempted to assert that any recent regulatory revision in FAR or DFARS that uses "streamline" or "innovate" or "efficiency" as the rationale for the change is, instead, doing exactly the opposite. I'm thinking of the June 2011 revisions to the "quick closeout" rules in particular. Ostensibly promulgated to speed contract close-outs, the changes did exactly the opposite. The recent DFARS changes to Performance-Based Payments also spring to mind as an example of de-innovation.

Can anybody name any regulatory change in the past 5 years that actually innovated for the sake of process improvement or efficiency? I'm at a loss to think of a single one.

H2H

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I like it! Regulations create conditions that squelch innovation when it attempts to formalize them. Again....organizational innovation becomes bunk. As the above FAR reference 1.102-4(e) would indicate...if it is in the FAR it is no longer innovative and thus perscriptive. Rather than let agency personnel tinker and fiddle, thus making and learning from mistakes (a key compoent of the development of technological innovation), policy makers try to document and formalize a process. Innovation is not a formula, therefore a formulaic documentation (new FAR rule) and perscription (application of that rule), or the misapplication of a on the part of the in-laws (legal, IG, leadership, etc...), leads to a more restrictive and less innovative environment.

This may be the classic case of the politics-admininstration dichotomy that tries to reign in public administrators and have them simply exercise rules rather than judgements. What I am excited about right now is that others see the same as I do (Ji, FF, and H2H) and are thinking along the same lines. Would investigating this from an academic, as well as practical, perspective be helpful?

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Reference your point: "Most COs, however, look at the FAR as a framework that is perscriptive, which is as it should be when applicable, but limits the ability for COs to look at problems differently and look for different ways to address them."

Notwithstanding the frequently prescriptive nature of FAR requirements (and the statutes which may direct them), the avenue to innovation is sometimes right before our eyes- if we can look at our problems from a different perspective. Take for example the exceptions to the FAR/statutory requirements for the use of "full and open competiton" and "competitive procedures". Most folks think of the exceptions only as a means to negotiate on a sole source basis or otherwise limit the number of potential offerors in a procurement. However, after a close examination of the FAR/statutory text and definitions, certain of the exceptions may also be used to redefine competitve processes, such as those presecribed by FAR Part 15. In the past, I used this approach to employ procedures more akin to those used in the private sector for certain types of commercial transactions. As a result, the solicitation, evaluation, and award process was freed from the standard conventions, techniques familiar to the particular industry were employed, and competition was maximized.

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odessa,

I'm curious about the example you cited and want to hear more. How did it work and can you provide specifics? For example did you use some means to identify the most viable industry participants and limit the competition to those sources?

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Guest Vern Edwards

I think we should quit talking about innovation. What the acquisition community calls "innovation" usually amounts to little more than finding ways to get around badly written laws and regulations in order to do things more quickly and with less paperwork. What we should do is ask ourselves why we have so many laws and regulations and why we must do so much paperwork.

The truth is that Congress and agency managers have long been writing rules to compensate for the lack of knowledge and competence among practitioners. We simply do not know our work well enough and cannot perform our tasks with enough skill to reliably avoid bone-head screw-ups. In order to fix this we need leadership. But the presidential appointment system gives us “leaders” who write articles praising the workforce for its professionalism while calling for workforce improvement and issuing regulations requiring "peer" reviews that are not "peer" reviews at all, but just more senior staff oversight. What we need is leaders who will speak truth to their peers and subordinates -- We don't know enough and don't do our jobs well enough -- and who will tackle the knowledge and competence problem head-on and with force and vigor.

We cannot do a better job with rules instead of knowledge and skill. Writing more rules only makes things worse, because it creates more for the already unknowledgeable to know. It creates IGs and auditors who act like umpires and referees, and it creates practitioners who act like basketball players who would call times out in order to consult one another about the NCAA's rules and write memos seeking legal office approval.

Anyway, all innovation seems to fail in the long run, as pointed out above by formerfed in Post #4. I know that what he wrote about past performance and oral presentations is true, but I found it to be shattering, nevertheless. What has happened to oral presentations is especially hurtful to me, because I was the person who first urged their use (in the modern sense), first wrote about it, and pushed hard to use them to replace technical proposals. I was also one of the people who pushed hard for greater use of past performance as a comparative evaluation criterion, in 1987, long before Steve Kelman arrived on the scene, and that has turned into something that is positively scary. Another example of failed innovation is the task order contract, which I used as an Air Force CO in the early 1980s. What an expensive, addictive nightmare they have become. The task order contract has virtually killed off program office acquisition planning and thoughtful specification, which are now almost extinct.

Why does innovation ultimately fail? Because of poor execution by those who jump on the bandwagon, but lack the knowledge and skill to pull it off, and thus ruin it for everyone. So, I'm not high on innovation. I'm high on knowledge and competence. In the long run our only real hope of having an acquisition system that does not embarrass us is to develop practitioners who know the game inside and out, play it extremely well, and inspire confidence, instead of laws and regulations.

Our leaders like to say that our acquisition system is the best in the world. But, when you think about it, that's not saying a lot.

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Vern, the poor guy is looking for research paper topics. You know as well as I do that academia is not interested in innovative research topics that challenge the status quo.

:-)

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Guest Vern Edwards

help:

Jon comes across to me as a guy who is willing to challenge the status quo. In fact, I know a lot of academics who are willing and even eager to challenge the status quo. That's what makes academic careers. However, sometimes innovation gets to be the status quo. Frequent calls for innovation are sure signs that something is wrong in a society. It means that people aren't happy with the way things are.

Vern

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Why does innovation ultimately fail? Because of poor execution by those who jump on the bandwagon, but lack the knowledge and skill to pull it off, and thus ruin it for everyone. So, I'm not high on innovation. I'm high on knowledge and competence. In the long run our only real hope of having an acquisition system that does not embarrass us is to develop practitioners who know the game inside and out, play it extremely well, and inspire confidence, instead of laws and regulations.

This is so true, Vern. It also pretty much says it all. Your task order example is a great one and when agencies spend more time and effort placing a task order than it takes to do a brand new action from scratch (GSA Schedule, commercial item using SAT procedures, open market contract, etc.), something is wrong.

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help and Vern...as always thanks for the posts. Just to set the record straight...I am not a pure adacemic. I am a federal employee working in and around the contracting field. More pragmatic practicioner that likes to engage in productive reading, research, and thinking rather than a pure academic (it keeps me out of the pubs...which keeps my wife happy). In other words....I am no navel gazer (at least I hope I am not).

Vern...you made my point for me. You may be correct about working around poorly written laws and regulation, but laws and regulations are written for a number of other reason's beyond what you characterize. Social goals, political expediency, the desire for policy makers to show that they are doing something. But once something has been set in regulation it is no longer an innovation. Again, FAR 1.102-4(e) - “absence of direction should be interpreted as permitting the Team to innovate and use sound business judgment that is otherwise consistent with law and within the limits of their authority. Contracting officers should take the lead in encouraging business process innovations and ensuring that business decisions are sound.” So if it is in the FAR it is by definition no longer innovative.

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Vern,

Re: "I'm curious about the example you cited and want to hear more."

Sorry to be so tardy in response.

  • The industry we needed support from was not familiar with government contracting & had no real interest in learning (couldn't blame 'em).
  • Used industry vehicles to explain the need, solicit interest, and explain the selection process. Had one on one discussions with principles to elaborate. (Used Government vehicles as well, but no one reponded)
  • Asked for submission of basic qualification information
  • Down- selected to the four companies identified as best qualified
  • Asked for written proposals from the four using a limited number of very focused selection criteria
  • Conducted interviews with the teams proposed to work on the project
  • A three member selection committee selected the winner, subject to successful negotiation of the complete contract within a specified period of time (with the proviso that if agreement was not reached within that time we would move on to the next best)
  • The contract included all mandatory government contract clauses, but relied heavily on industry norms
  • Compensation was in accordance with industry norms, and evaluated for reasonableness in consideration of those norms
  • The whole process took a little over a month. No complaints. The selected company did a great job and the project was successfully completed
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Guest Vern Edwards

odessa,

I think you were responding to formerfed. I did not express curiosity, he did. See Post #9.

By the way, Don has just asked a good question.

Vern

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The truth is that Congress and agency managers have long been writing rules to compensate for the lack of knowledge and competence among practitioners. We simply do not know our work well enough and cannot perform our tasks with enough skill to reliably avoid bone-head screw-ups. In order to fix this we need leadership. But the presidential appointment system gives us “leaders” who write articles praising the workforce for its professionalism while calling for workforce improvement and issuing regulations requiring "peer" reviews that are not "peer" reviews at all, but just more senior staff oversight. What we need is leaders who will speak truth to their peers and subordinates -- We don't know enough and don't do our jobs well enough -- and who will tackle the knowledge and competence problem head-on and with force and vigor.

We cannot do a better job with rules instead of knowledge and skill. Writing more rules only makes things worse, because it creates more for the already unknowledgeable to know. It creates IGs and auditors who act like umpires and referees, and it creates practitioners who act like basketball players who would call times out in order to consult one another about the NCAA's rules and write memos seeking legal office approval.

These are the best two paragraphs ever written.

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  • 2 months later...

Quote: "Most COs, however, look at the FAR as a framework that is perscriptive, which is as it should be when applicable, but limits the ability for COs to look at problems differently and look for different ways to address them."

When you take into consideration the sheer size and complexity of the FAR and its supplements- in order to function as a contract specialist one has to essentially live in this mental framework. Adding one little drop of drop of innovation (FAR 1.102-4(e)) into this sea of presciptive behavior has little effect.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Odessa's procurement sounds like a professional services qualifications-based process. I deal with those often and struggle with the lack of price competition.

Vern's comments remind me of the sometimes expressed hope that the United States will have airport security which is as good as the Israelis. The Israelis have *one* airport, and the only allow the very best in the business to work security there. This is why they appear to be absolute security ninjas, while our airport security seems fairly pedestrian.

Can you imagine how good the contracting shop would be if there was only one medium sized agency in the Federal goverment? This shop could be an amazing crew of highly paid, highly trained practitioners with the best tools available. The FAR would not be the size that it is today.

This is a dream, though. Vern is absolutely correct that an elite workforce fixes almost everything, but this solution is *not scalable*. I'm part of the problem, of course. I'm not very well trained (though I'm certainly curious!). My background was not in this field, and I don't really have many good tools at my disposal. I'm a decent, journeyman-level practitioner who has to look things up and ask a few dumb questions, and I am legion. There are not enough Verns, formerfeds, etc. to go around.

Regulations are scalable. Prescriptions are scalable. Excellent people are not. Barring some magical moneyball-type talent evaluation tool for COs, or barring scaling back the Federal Government to some managable level (i.e. dissolving the SBA, Dept. of Energy, and a host of other agencies), these problems will persist. There is no innovation, there is no hope. There are only tradeoffs using the resources available, and whatever incremental improvement which can be gained through the hard work of personal improvement.

Sorry to be kind of a downer.

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Guest Vern Edwards

There was an interesting article in the June 23 issue of The New Yorker entitled, "The Disruption Machine: Rethinking the innovation craze," by Jill Lepore. The author thinks that "the gospel" of innovation has been overpreached. She writes about the work of Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard prof who wrote: The Innovator's Dilemma (1997) and other books about what he calls "disruptive innovation." She's not fond of his ideas.

I think that competence is the biggest challenge facing government. I think it's a crisis. The problem is: If the government is incompetent, or largely so, is it competent to fix its competency problem.

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Can you imagine how good the contracting shop would be if there was only one medium sized agency in the Federal goverment? This shop could be an amazing crew of highly paid, highly trained practitioners with the best tools available. The FAR would not be the size that it is today....

Regulations are scalable. Prescriptions are scalable. Excellent people are not. Barring some magical moneyball-type talent evaluation tool for COs, or barring scaling back the Federal Government to some managable level (i.e. dissolving the SBA, Dept. of Energy, and a host of other agencies), these problems will persist. There is no innovation, there is no hope. There are only tradeoffs using the resources available, and whatever incremental improvement which can be gained through the hard work of personal improvement.

I largely agree. One problem not often mentioned is that there's simply too much procurement going on. But I don't see a realistic solution to that, either.

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I largely agree. One problem not often mentioned is that there's simply too much procurement going on. But I don't see a realistic solution to that, either.

I was about to suggest that balancing the federal budget could be a solution for too much procurement (spending) going on. :) However, the thought came that "likely" is perhaps the best synonym for your above use of the word "realistic". Balancing the federal budget does not appear to be a likely solution anytime soon, but if it was likely, I would probably have to find something else to do. :D

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