Friday, March 5, 2010

Acquisition 2.0 Starts With FAR 2.0

Originally posted on BetterBlog, this official blog of the Better Buy Project.

Let me first apologize to Andy Krzmarzick (@krazykris on Twitter), as I have been promising a post on performance-based contracting and how it relates to the Better Buy Project and the Acquisition 2.0 initiative. I actually started that post, but put in on hold a bit as I found something of interest that I have also been meaning to discuss.

At the Better Buy Project forum at the National Association of Public Administration (NAPA) last December, I was discussing with Mary Davie of the General Services Administration the need to reform not only acquisition, but the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) itself. We both commented that we often get curious looks when we mention this in conversation, but part of the rebuilding of the acquisition mission is to look at the FAR, as it seems ripe for an overhaul. In fact, the FAR can be fertile ground for change, and that change can certainly be done under the umbrella of Acquisition 2.0 tools and methodologies, much like performance-based contracting.

The FAR, in my opinion, has become a snake-pit of over-regulation; a maze of parochial interest. As lawmakers turned to help constituencies and thus narrow interests, or through well-meaning yet poorly planned and poorly though out policy, the current FAR is an example of simply how not to conduct world-class buying.

I was revisiting a wonderful piece of common sense approaches to reform by the Procurement Roundtable (PRT) that are very relevant to the current transformation discussion, not to mention illustrative of how difficult reform can be as the report is dated December, 1999.

The recommendation regarding policy guidance I believe to be spot on, and concur with the PRT that the way forward is much less regulation and far fewer detailed procurement laws. The reform process would work in an Acquisition 2.0 construct, where mission and broad policy statements commence the process of the final outcome; a digital, e-procurement guidance or FAR 2.0.

Under FAR 2.0, guidance should focus on outcomes and mission by concentrating on National or agency goals and objectives. This guidance would not be regulation, and would certainly not be details about how to perform the mission.

The next step is recreating FAR 2.0 would be a crowd sourcing initiative, much like the Better Buy Project. The acquisition community would be able to comment on eliminating the redundancy and over-regulation, focus on commercial best practices, and eliminate those existing statutes, agency regulations, and other directives that burden procurement and detail how to perform the mission. This approach is what the PRT referred to as a "zero-based" approach; which is to start with a blank sheet and add only what can be thoroughly justified.

Further input would of course be proposals for re-creating and streamlining the buying process, changing the new FAR to make it a "what, not how" model of world-class procurement. The rule for streamlining and creating FAR 2.0 would be to follow those commercial processes that allow for a fair and open acquisition process, and allow for real transparency and accountability to the taxpayer. This new process would be based on constant innovation; eliminating and revising any existing guidance or policy that does not allow for the leveraging of new information technology. The goal is to build an acquisition process for the 21st century, and executed by a right-sized and blended 21st century acquisition workforce with the right skills and capabilities to leverage this new process.

Not an easy task, no doubt. However, recognizing the institutional challenges that have hampered reform in the past are the first areas to attack by change agents and leaders who claim to want real, meaningful reform, and who are also demanding accountability and transparency. Some agencies will continue claiming uniqueness, and Congress may the biggest obstacle. However, the Acquisition 2.0 forum and the collaborative nature of this FAR 2.0 initiative can use the successes and lessons learned from Better Buy to involve all the concerned stakeholders, including the organizations that published the overly prescriptive guidance and have legitimacy to claims of uniqueness. Only by taking risks and exploring innovative ideas can we expect to see change that matters.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Portraying Government Procurement: Is It The Media Or The Culture?

Recent testimony by Steve Schooner, co-director of The George Washington University's Government Procurement Law Program, and others before the House Armed Services Committee's Defense Acquisition Reform Panel, helped paint the picture and made valid points about how the media portrays the federal acquisition environment and the current state it is in.

"The pervasive anti-contractor rhetoric emanating from the media, not-for-profit organizations, the legislature, the executive branch (including, among others, the Justice Department, Defense Contract Audit Agency and the inspectors general) colors public perceptions of contractors and the acquisition profession," said Mr. Schooner. "There is more truth to black humor in Jacques Gansler's popular new moniker for the current environment -- the 'global war on contractors.' "

However, I believe this is only half the story. I believe the media is simply reporting on what is becoming a culture of “Insource at All Costs,” with little regard to quality of the acquisition workforce, and thus creating the term that Mr. Gansler referenced.

The current environment and culture of the acquisition workforce that new hires enter into is not a pretty picture. For years the workforce has been neglected, with little attention to building skills or future capabilities. Furthermore, the environment has been one of risk aversion, exacerbated with little need for innovation or developing the tools necessary to be true business advisors and partners for programs. The result is that the acquisition workforce has stagnated on many fronts, and new hires seem to be lost in developing their own skills.

The average professional in the current workforce is very experienced, but it is becoming more and more difficult for them to train and mentor new hires, which tend to be younger and less experienced. I do not believe this is a result of generational friction, which may the case in some instances, but more of a function of the lack of resources. Many simply do not have the time, or leadership does not see it as a priority. This very fact was further discussed by Steve Kelman in a recent blog post on this topic.

The federal procurement process is a maze of bureaucracy and mind-numbing regulations that takes years of experience and know-how on navigating these difficult waters. But as Mr. Kelman pointed out, new hires seem to be given very little focused training to the point that the new hires he was talking to had received no guidance on learning anything about the products or services they were buying. The overall feedback he received was alarming, as was the lack of innovation and underutilization of these talented people who want to serve. Chairman Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J, said it best:

…"If you make the proper investment in experience and skill, if you motivate and reward experienced and skilled people and empower them to do the things that need to be done, they can make improvements that can turn the whole system around."

Ultimately these issues need to be solved by changing the culture and environment, and driven by the supervisors, senior contracting officials, and acquisition leaders at the agencies to create the 21st century acquisition workforce. Further, empowering the next generation is ultimately necessary to succeed, and not be treated as a necessary-evil but a strategic imperative by leadership.

However, the guidance from the Office and Management and Budget seems to be more distressing, as I see further evidence of the counter product attitude that seems to be emanating from the various institutions Mr. Schooner identified in his testimony. Leadership is vitality needed to help solve these daunting issues, as industry and government need to be working more collaboratively, expanding ways they communicate, and fining solutions together. However, it seems that the pervasive attitude is for the pendulum to drastically swing in the government’s direction, vice finding the right balance to perform the vital missions of government to ensure the best outcomes for cost, schedule, and performance.