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Policy will not fix acquisition.

Posted by Vern Edwards, 19 July 2012 · 5,402 views

A Minor League Kerfluffle

Steve Kelman and I have been involved in a minor league kerfluffle over a comment I made in response to a blog post he wrote entitled, “A new way to use past performance in contracting.” He proposed a new contracting incentive. Here is how he described it:

Here’s my proposal: if a contractor, at the end of the contract where performance has met requirements, returns 3 percent of the fee on a fixed-price contract to the government customer (maybe make it 5 percent for a contract under $500,000), the contractor will automatically be given the highest-possible rating on the cost control element of the past performance evaluation, with an explanation in the evaluation of why the rating was received. With the increased attention these days to cost control, this may be a valuable incentive for contractors to return money (to which, it should be remembered, they are entitled to by the contract) to the government.


I commented, “I cannot tell you how awful I think the ‘fee’ return idea is. Truly awful.” I let it go at that. But feeling guilty about not explaining myself, I posted a detailed explanation in a later comment. You can read the whole thing here: http://fcw.com/Blogs...re-results.aspx.

Steve responded with a later blog post entitled, “A response to my critics,” later retitled, “How to think about new policy proposals -- feedback on my feedback.” He cited a “fascinating” paper by a Harvard Business School professor to insinuate that what he sees as my negativism is a way for me to feel better about myself. I responded by telling him that he seems to think that acquisition problems can be solved by new policies and procedural gimmicks, but that that the only way to fix deep seated problems in acquisition is to improve the workforce, and I tried to enlist him in that struggle. You can read that here: http://fcw.com/Blogs...m.aspx#Comments.

The Policy-Making Imperative

Here is the problem in acquisition today as I see it:

When someone is unhappy with something, for instance, if they think the government pays too much for goods and services, some official launches an “initiative” and issues a policy memorandum with a snappy title directing that acquisition personnel do things a certain way:
  • From now on, write performance work statements.
  • Negotiate fixed-price incentive contracts with a 50/50 share line and a 120 percent ceiling.
  • Set negotiation objectives for service contracts at 2010 price levels.
  • Definitize undefinitized contractual actions within 180 days.
They then usually provide for waivers under certain circumstances.

In short, the standard approach to problem solving is to issue policy and procedure directives. Sometimes the policy is called a policy innovation, or an innovative policy. (Innovate is second only to dream as America’s favorite magic word. If alien archeologists visit this planet after we’re gone and examine our surviving records, they will dub us the Dreaming Innovators. They will say that our civilization might have survived if we had spent less time dreaming and innovating and more time seeing reality and using our heads.)

Reactions To Policy

So what happens after a new policy is issued? First, the people in the field (or in the trenches, as some like to say, but really in the cubicles) roll their eyes and sigh. Then they start asking questions:
  • What do you mean, exactly?
  • Do you mean this or do you mean that?
  • Does the new policy apply to this or to that circumstance?
  • Does the dollar threshold include options?
  • What is the waiver procedure?
  • Who can approve waivers?
  • How long will it take to get a waiver?
  • Are you going to delegate waiver authority?
  • And, finally, the ultimate question: How do I do that?
The policy makers go on the conference circuit and hold virtual chautuaquas. Their staffs prepare PowerPoint presentations. They issue additional guidance about the policy and write manuals (which prompt more questions). The trade press write stories and trade associations issue cautionary white papers.

Some in the field, glad to see something new, anything new, get on board and design the innovative implementations of the policy maker’s dreams in the hope of recognition and maybe a silver hammer. Those are the Positivists. The Negativists write skeptical critiques or scathing condemnations, or simply foam at the mouth. Consultants set up shop and write slight “how to” pieces in trade and professional publications, hoping for new business. Some are dubbed “gurus” of the new policy and conduct pricey seminars devoid of details. The most ambitious write a book, or arrange for someone else to write it and then take author credit.

The Implementation

The policy makers set up a reporting scheme. Reporting is late and inaccurate. Ultimately, it is found that surveillance has been poor and implementation has been spotty. Congress holds hearings, complains about the spotty implementation, and enacts the new policy into law, apparently in the belief that everyone respects and fears them and will thus comply. Congress demands reports. Reports are late and inaccurate. The GAO finds that implementation of the law is spotty and ineffective or not as effective as it could be if everyone followed GAO’s recommendations.

Time passes. The policy maker moves on. The no-longer-new policy dims and may fade away entirely. It is ignored by the original policy maker’s successor, who wants her own initiative. It is mentioned no more at conferences. Seminars are offered no longer. Reporting continues, but no one really cares anymore. In time, some future official will launch an initiative that dotty old timers will say seems familiar. And then some crotchety paper hoarder will come in waving a copy of the original memo from a decade or two earlier, proving once again that there is no new thing under the sun.

The Great Game

Policy making is the great game in acquisition. We are being overwhelmed by laws, regulations, case law, policy memos, manuals, and handbooks. Policy making is the only power of the otherwise impotent. Senior officials, especially political (excuse me, I meant presidential) appointees, are touted as successes because they issued a couple of policy memos and attended a lot of meetings before moving on to better jobs on the strength of their newly padded resumes. They then write articles and make speeches about their policy memos and meetings and speak of things still to be done, even though they did not stay on to do them. The mere issuance of a policy memo is deemed a success, regardless of whether it is proven to be effective. If the policy maker is really bold, he or she will simply claim or imply success for the policy even in the absence of verifiable data. If they are modest at all they will claim limited success, which validates their theory, and say that it would have been more effective if implemented properly at the working level.

This has been going on for decades. The real way to improve acquisition is to improve the acquisition workforce -- really, seriously, improve it. But that would be hard and take time, and would be expensive. When most officials talk about improving the acquisition workforce they mean hiring more people. Oh, they will talk about improving the quality of the workforce, but they think that means ensuring that more people get to the official PowerPoint sessions ("training courses"). They have no idea what to do and how to do it. They don’t even have dreams. Innovation is putting the PowerPoint sessions online.

Reality Check

Acquisition works reasonably well if what you care about is that paper gets processed and stuff gets bought. Stuff does get bought. Whether we pay good prices and get good quality within a reasonable period of time is another matter. We often do and we often don’t. The vast majority of buys are for commodities and commodified services, and those go reasonably well, although there will always be something for the GAO and the IGs to complain about -- poor implementation or regulatory violations that, if fixed, might produce better results. As for the big stuff -- major defense systems and large information technology programs -- things are generally a mess, but they have been a mess pretty much throughout history. We know what the problems are, we just can’t fix them. We never will. We work in a cloud of mediocrity.

The Way To Real Improvement

In a complex system like acquisition, any attempt to fix deep seated system faults through policy will fail. The only way to get at the deep seated problems in acquisition is through workforce improvement, and I don’t mean numbers. We need well-educated, superbly trained people for the big stuff, and we do not have enough of them. Mismanagement and poor leadership will prompt many of the best of the new recruits to leave. The problems are beyond the reach of management in the organizational structure we have now for the simple reason that no one is in charge. Only someone with the power and the ruthlessness of a Stalin could fix the system. A few purges might be just the thing.

Here’s how to have a good career in contracting: First, study. Read a lot, read widely, and think about what you read. Next, find a contracting office to work for that does demanding work, like the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in El Segundo, California, which is doing really interesting work, is staffed by people of very high quality, and is very well led. Work, learn, and grow. If that is not enough, write articles and books. That will keep you busy. Ignore the rest, because you cannot do anything about it. Roll with the punches. Practice a wry smile.

I’ve heard that some call me the prophet of doom (or maybe it was gloom, I’m not sure). I’m not, really. I just do not rest my hopes on the system. I rest them on people, individuals. The only hope for our system is that committed individuals will never stop trying to be the best that they can be and to bring out the best in their colleagues. If enough individuals will do that, good things will happen. Try it. You’re going to like the way you feel.




Vern: I agree. You've really hit the nail on the head with this blog post. I think it is just more satisfying to draft a impressive-sounding policy than to actually dig into the real problem - the need for more of the right people (hard-working, well-trained, critical-thinking professionals) for acquisition. The game seems to be to just keep the routine going. One of the most interesting articles I've read recently (although a few years old now) is found here: http://theamericansc...and-leadership/.

His reference to the "big boss" from the Heart of Darkness is worth noting:


"He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold. . . . Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. . . . He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a . . . a . . . faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. . . . He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? . . . He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause."

The more I've been involved in this bureaucratic acquisition world, the more the above quote returns to me. To be fair, it doesn't characterize all "bosses" (or oversight/auditing agencies), but often I feel like those that are conducting oversight/audits know little more than those they are auditing/overseeing....as such, they just like to make them feel "uneasy" instead of truly showing them the way.

Your blog entry is spot-on and your advice is sound.
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I currently support Army contracting deployed in Afghanistan. I have never worked for a more reactionary organization in terms of policy issuance from every level (from branch chiefs all the way up to general officers and everyone in between). Anytime anything happens that is unusual or problematic a new policy, directive, or instruction comes out in almost a zombie-like fashion. Very frustrating...
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