Friday, November 29, 2013

Will VA certifications of SDVOSB go away? We in the Veteran’s community can only hope so

Photo by ZDNet
Recent contracting missteps, as reported by the Washington Business Journal (WBJ) and Microtech by the Washington Post, seem to have endangered the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) programs for certifying firms as either Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) or Veteran Owned Small Business (VOSB).
Although the current certification process is challenging enough, this recent issue by VA really is inexplicable, and a glaring example of the overall mismanagement of the VA contracting process for a program that supposedly is “critical” for the VA mission:
The Department of Veterans Affairs abruptly ended a three-year contract with an Alexandria company nearly three months earlier than planned, leaving in limbo the crucial task of processing applications from contractors hoping to be verified as veteran-owned small businesses…
To give VA cover, in typical bureaucratic fashion, was Tom Leney, chief of small and veteran business programs at the VA:
…The VA’s head of small and veteran-owned business programs is apologetic about the change, though short on details. He’s also vowing that the agency’s application processing work — which has drawn fire from critics — will continue, and be done efficiently…
…”I recognize the impact that this change has and I am sorry that we have not been able to avoid this situation,” Tom Leney, the VA’s executive director of the small and veteran business programs, wrote in an email to Ardelle employees who support the contract, which was obtained by Washington Business Journal…

Where Do Certifications Go From Here?

What to make of all this? Well, one of the main contractors processing applications, Ardelle Associates, is trying to figure out what do. Ardelle President, Art Forcey, had some interesting ideas as to what is happening:
…”I think it was political. I think delays in getting a new competition started caused infighting about what to do and people took some heat for extending our contract,” he said. “But this wasn’t the right way to go.”…
Was it political? Of course it was. However, one of the principal reasons that I believe caused this misstep was simply a lack of proper acquisition planning. I am sure there was infighting, but this program is a great foundation for “empire building”, as I like to call it, and as further demonstrated by the recent power grab by the VA to take control of SDVOSB eligibility away from the Small Business Administration (SBA).
Nonetheless, we can only hope that these continued issues will allow the VA to get back to its core mission, which should not include certifications of SDVOSBs and VOSBs. In fact, the $40 million being spent on these programs should be diverted to the backlog of claims that are both an embarrassment, and a disservice, to veterans waiting in almost perpetuity for their claims to be processed.

Common Sense Legislation Can Solve This Problem

Recent investigations and legislation into the certification process by both the House Small Business Committee and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hopefully correct these VA lapses and bring improved efficiency and consistency to the process, currently known for mismanagement and waste.
Further, legislation to this effect can hopefully now move forward. Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO), has introduced or co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to correct these issues, most notably H.R. 2882, “Improving Opportunities for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Act of 2013,” which requires VA to relinquish control over the verification of SDVOSBs and VOSBs to the SBA.
I believe this is the way to go, as this exercise in futility is simply not working, and drastic change is needed. There is simply too much overall, redundancy, and a lack of defined methodology and processes that subject the firms seeking verification to subjective terms. Furthermore, the process is needlessly complicated and cumbersome, and lengthy delays and rejections are inevitable in this environment.
Black Friday
Photo by USPS
Although the numbers seemingly are gamed as to the length of time for certification coming out of the Center for Veterans Enterprise at 27 days, a line longer than Black Friday lines at Best Buy can be formed of firms that can refute this ridiculous statistic of the time and documentation required for certification.
I hope this legislation moves forward, as it makes sense. The SBA already has the processes, infrastructure, and experience in place to certify firms for socioeconomic certifications and eligibility. That is what they should be doing. It is a matter of sticking to your strengths, and certifications should not be part of the VA mission any longer.
Contact your Congressional representative, and get them on board with H.R. 2882. You can do this directly from
Don’t our veterans deserve better?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

How Will Not Drive Federal IT Acquisition Reform

Photo by ActiveRain
After weeks of reports about the debacle known as (here and here), the latest news and actions around preventing the next IT boondoggle are now headed in the direction of reforming IT acquisition.

Although President Obama got in on the action, I do not expect any significant reforms to take place, until the root cause of the problems are addressed. Further, “fixing” IT acquisition is not a silver-bullet endeavor, but as the Professional Service Council highlights in their latest report, there are some fundamental approaches to improving the current situation that do not require any new legislation or further regulations (thankfully).

Nonetheless, if real IT acquisition reform is to be realized, the answer is to dig deep and not focus on outlying issues. Not an easy proposition.

Fixing IT Acquisition: Strip It Down to the Bolts

Just weeks before the failed launch of, I was having an interesting and enlightening debate with Clay Johnson on LinkedIn regarding innovation and RFP-EZ. Clay is CEO at The Department of Better Technology and one of the original Presidential Innovation Fellows of the RFP-EZ project.

He and I were debating about the need for IT innovation and its definition, in addition to creating software and technologies that provide rapid capability at a fraction of what most IT projects cost. That is to say, it is possible to create and deliver technologies and capabilities that meet end-user expectations for functionality without breaking the bank or requiring being hauled before Congress.

My main concern regarding RFP-EZ is that this technology already exists; mainly through Federal Business Opportunities or Wasn’t RFP-EZ a redundant technology? Shouldn’t we be more focused on fixing the real IT acquisition issues, like the workforce?

No question infrastructure, human capital, and execution are major problems, but after seeing rolled out, and Clay’s remark about the possibilities that exist to solve the issues of IT in the federal space, I believe his vision to reform how government purchases technology is what can lead to real change.

“Big Bang” Means “Big Bucks”, With Little To Show For The Investment

One of the biggest issues I see is simply culture, as government is fully entrenched in purchasing large programs with thousands of disparate requirements and no clear vision of what capabilities are desired. Combined with an aversion to change how business is conducted, and further exacerbated by strong business (e.g. lobbyists) interests that prefer the status quo, this will be one of the hardest issues to combat.

Recent federal leadership comments, I believe, illustrate this point. Comments by former Department of Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires and former acting administrator at the General Services Administration, Jim Williams, illustrate this problem. Although their recommendations are very useful and helpful, one has to wonder about the level of success of IT programs at their respective agencies when they held their respective positions. Furthermore, they both effectively state “Next time we undergo another large program like, we need to do better.”

To realize real change, we need to put the brakes on this “Big Bang” approach to purchasing IT and ensure return on investment is at the forefront of future technology acquisitions.

Photo by BCW, UK
Innovation Can Not Happen With “Big Bang”

Everyone talks about how there is ample competition in the federal acquisition marketplace, and how regulations promote this competition. If you really believe this, I have a bridge to sell you.

There is a reason that such a vast majority of federal business is won by a small number of firms, and this entrenched environment is part of the “IT Cartel” that former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra discussed. Although this moniker was regrettable, and pounced on by large government contractors and the media, his analysis was very accurate.

Although his “25 Point Implementation Plan To Reform Federal Information Technology Management” laid the groundwork for real transformation, I would argue that little has been done to fully execute these initiatives, outside of cloud computing and data center consolidation.

Until government understands that huge multi-million dollar IT programs simply are a continued recipe for waste and little innovation, we will continue to build more projects like

What Does Real Change Look Like?

For starters, Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that are hundreds of pages of requirements, that no one understands (especially with requirements that are TBD), go away. After 30+ RFP amendments and months, if not years to award the final contract where the technology requirements are now obsolete at contract award, who thinks this is a good idea anymore?

Further, getting more small businesses in the federal technology space is what will drive more innovation in technology, and improve the level of technological capability that IT projects deliver. As opposed to the business model of requiring large businesses to run these massive legacy systems at enormous expense that total billions every year, smaller firms are simply closer to cutting edge, ground-breaking technological capability that is required to change the paradigm, and improve the level of services the federal government delivers.

All at a fraction of the cost, I might add.

The requirement for Open Systems Architecture would also go a long way to improving capability, since the current environment is to purchase “Commercial-of-the-Shelf” technologies, then spend hundreds of millions of dollars to customize the software for government use that ultimately creates proprietary software, and a nightmare for data rights and licensing fees. This only encourages less competition, since usually only the incumbent (a large business) has the resources to manage these enormous undertakings, or compete on them for that matter. Security issues, for the most part, are also nothing more than a red herring at this point.

Of course, holding those accountable for failure is also woefully lacking in the federal environment. Only in the federal government can you manage a program that wastes millions of dollars, only to have it fail, and possibly canceled, and the only response seems to be a shoulder shrug.

Risk taking and bad management are two separate things, and the former is what needs to be encouraged. Combined with using more Agile development techniques, and a renewed focus on workforce capabilities and not just box-checking certification requirements, are further areas of improving the status quo.

We do not need the next to drive change. I think we taxpayers have had enough.