There Is No Single Route to IT Procurement Reform
Categories: Governance | Tags: clay johnson, federal it procurement, it procurement, npr, professional services council, stan soloway
A couple weeks ago, we noted how two of the most prominent voices calling for IT procurement reform seemed to be at odds. Stan Soloway, head of the Professional Services Council and Department of Better Technology CEO Clay Johnson. Yesterday, NPR’s “All Tech Considered” also ran a piece about the Soloway’s and Johnson’s views, setting them up once again as diametrically opposed.
Here’s how NPR—and in fairness, the participants—framed the debate:
Stan Soloway heads the Professional Services Council, which represents federal contractors who are hired to build these projects. He told The Times he sees the problem as the “punishing and punitive” environment of government.…
Instead, [Johnson] sees the issue as being an environment that doesn’t favor competition, which boosts incumbents who do mediocre or even poor work.
So the debate now seems to be: Is the problem poor project management, or poor competition? And my question becomes: Does one seem oppositional to the other? I suppose one could argue that either project management or poor competition is the more pressing problem, but that hardly seems to matter if we’re interested in comprehensive IT procurement reform. There isn’t enough competition not just because the FAR is byzantine and restrictive, but also because the government doesn’t do a good job of collaborating with suppliers, understanding its own requirements so that it can seek more creative suppliers. Competition also suffers because of the bundling of requirements, which forces out smaller, specialist companies that can’t perform all of the varied services in a single contract. In other words, that’s a project management problem that heavily restricts competition. Is the risk-averse environment of contracting not a reason that big, known contractors may often be more attractive to government?
The two problems are inextricably entwined. In 2009, The FAIR Institute published a paper titled: “The State of Competition: Enhancing Competition and Increasing Innovation Across the Federal Government Supply Chain,” and though the paper is now nearly five years old, the questions it raises and addresses are the same ones being argued about today, and clearly lays out how competition is restricted due to a flawed procurement process. As the paper states:
Going forward, the more relevant question is, are we creating a competitive marketplace for federal contracts that
- Is a source of innovation, one capable of attracting the most qualified, innovative, and ultimately best suppliers for any given need?
- Ensures lowest total lifecycle costs for purchased products and services, ensuring public dollars are spent effectively?
Setting up this discussion as either/or is wrongheaded, in my view, and it seems like participants in the debate (and reporters of it, including myself) may often get caught up in who is saying what, rather than what they’re actually saying.