There Is No Single Route to IT Procurement Reform

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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.

Comments

  • Frank McNally:

    Is the FAR really “byzantine and restrictive,” or is the application of its guidance the problem? For example, the FAR tells the acquisition professional to avoid bundling it unless it can produce measurable savings for the requirement:

    “Bundling may provide substantial benefits to the Government. However, because of the potential impact on small business participation, the head of the agency must conduct market research to determine whether bundling is necessary and justified.”

    Most acquisition professionals understand this, but the head of the agency has a big influence on the direction of major programs. At times, this lead to decisions that are made without a full understanding of the underlying acquisition principles. The outcome often is blaming of the procurement process, rather than decisions that get made external to it.

    I agree, by the way, with the premise of your argument and that both Mr. Solloway and Mr. Johnson can add value to the enormous effort of acquisition improvement and that competition and program requirements both need to be considered.

    Its a “yes and” conversation, not an “either or.”

  • Chris Chant:

    Clay Johnson has it for me

    Without innovation, agile, most qualified and best suppliers, the load on Project Management is so burdensome, projects rarely succeed.

    1/Let in the smaller more innovative suppliers (who’s very existence depends on the success of every delivery ),
    2/reform Federal Procurement to ease access for small companies and prevent duplicated procurement and security work,
    3/ break the projects into smaller components,
    4/ rid yourself of the incumbent lumbering, overly expensive, innovation free, large system integrators,
    5/focus on real user need and..
    6/sit back and watch the situation improve in leaps and bounds

  • Stan Soloway:

    Jonathan, I actually agree with you and that has been much of the point I have been trying to make. I think it IS a holistic issue. There are many reasons a lot of new players have opted to not come into the government market and there are many reasons that those in the market find it increasingly difficult to navigate as well. Thus, it is not “either/or;” it is all of it. You could bring the most innovative, cutting edge players to the table today and even award them contracts with significant and complex requirements and they would likely struggle as well. It’s about human capital, unique and expensive compiance requirements (from cost accounting to requirements generation), the lack of collaboration and more. If we can address those foundational issues, then the market will indeed be more open, inviting, and the chips will fall where they may. But simply assuming that changing the players will lead to massive improvement, without addressing the system in which they have to operate, is shortsighted. Unfortunately, too many, including NPR, interpret my running dialogue with Clay as one of the traditional contractors (me) vs. “new” tech (him). That’s not at all the case; in fact, I think we share the same objective. It’s the path to achieving it that is my focus.,

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