Acquisition Reform: What Does It Look Like?
Many around Washington have started the dialogue on acquisition reform as the solution to a decades’ long government challenge to leverage the power and efficiency of technology. The White House, Congress, and the Department of Defense have dedicated resources to making acquisition reform a priority in 2014. However, it is important to keep in mind that troubled IT program rollouts, like Healthcare.gov, are symptomatic of broader systemic failures in federal acquisition. Any viable solution must include, as a starting point, a holistic assessment of the acquisition practices and requirements of the U.S. federal government and recommendations to address the challenges and problems identified in that assessment should also take a holistic approach. We should also avoid latching onto proposals that only offer incremental changes and brand them as improvements and solutions to the broader systemic problems – they aren’t.
We here at the IT Alliance for Public Sector recommend that any assessment and solution for reform at a minimum must:
- Restore Eroded Preferences for Commercial Item Products and Services. Unlike the research and development initiatives of the 1950’s and 1960’s, innovation is driven today by the private sector. By restoring preferences for commercial item products and services and acquiring them using commercial-like transactions, the government can leverage the latest state-of-the-art technologies, increase competition in federal procurements, and reduce costs associated with government-specific requirements.
- Better Manage IT Investments. We need to establish a more meaningful IT program management career path and incentivize management that creates optimal outcomes for schedule, costs, and performance. Investments in IT should assess life-cycle costs as a means of determining best value for the taxpayer and diminish focus on finding only lowest cost. IT programs are consistently shown to be more successful when agency or department executives are engaged as leaders in determining IT investment and management decisions.
- Focus on Improving the Acquisition Workforce. The government must better recruit, train, and retain personnel with knowledge of information technology in order to develop better requirements, conduct improved acquisition planning, procure best value technology, and better manage IT investments. We must provide opportunities for career enhancement through professional development, industry exchanges, cross training, etc., and provide competitive compensation for success. We must incentivize acquisition personnel to recognize and pursue best value and not just lowest cost. Right now, government employees are rewarded for delivering the lowest price and not for the best value for the agency and the taxpayer. We must also encourage meaningful, frequent, and robust opportunities for industry and government to exchange ideas, technical specifications, and best practices to encourage a better outcome.
- Create an Effective Oversight Environment. In order to encourage more competition in the federal public sector, we need to find ways to reduce barriers to entering and staying in the market. We should also identify ways to make oversight and the burdens it can create on agencies and vendors more effective, like eliminating duplicative or redundant requirements and making sure that data generated by the government is captured by the government, instead of requiring agencies and vendors to recreate information the government already possesses.
- Provide More Flexibility to Enable Technology Investment Options. Currently, we don’t fund IT investments to keep pace with product and service innovations. This out-of-date, multi-year process actually ends up costing the taxpayers more. We should enable more options and better IT investment decisions through funding flexibility, including the use of revolving and working capital funds.
- Align Acquisition Practices with Our Global Trade Interests. We should ensure that our acquisition processes and practices support global trade and do not hamper the business of U.S.-based multi-national companies. Some of our acquisition practices are rooted in a time before the global supply chain and international trade agreements. They no longer make sense for procuring the best technology for the government mission and should be updated or scrapped.
Industry is ready for acquisition reform, and the taxpayers deserve it. Quick legislative fixes will not work. We encourage policy makers to focus on a holistic approach for government-wide reform, and avoid the piece-meal efforts that have only served to lead us to our current, overcomplicated, and inefficient system.