FCW Forum — Acquisition

Inventing Acquisition 2.0

The government's acquisition process has reached a crisis

In government, we often seem to be challenged to convey our needs clearly. This affects appropriate contractual relationships and our ability to control costs, eliminate scope creep, change orders, and — ultimately — get the desired outcome and results.

I recently posed several questions related to improving the requirements definition process in federal acquisition at the Acquisition 2.0 discussion group on GovLoop.com, a privately run social-networking site for government. (Note: You must register on GovLoop.com to view and comment.)

My questions are these: What makes defining requirements such a challenge for us? Do we have the skills to write good requirements documents for complex acquisitions that enable adaptability for change during development life cycle? Are we working too hard to get requirements 100 percent right before we move forward? Are we focused on defining the “how” instead of working to define success? Are resource shortages forcing shortcuts that eventually only prolong the timeline and costs and increase the risk of failure?

And the final question: Would making the requirements development process more open, collaborative and transparent help?

Imagine if we opened up the requirements process to anyone who wanted to participate and did so in a transparent and collaborative forum through structured processes and Web 2.0 tools. Using the wisdom of the crowd to define requirements and the best development process, participants could propose ideas based on experience, good practices and standards; question and weed out bad ideas; build on one another’s ideas; and float the best to the top.

Put aside for now questions about the manageability of the process, operating within the Federal Acquisition Regulation, when to apply this crowd-sourcing, open strategy, etc. Although business certainly has a financial motivation, individuals participate in peer production communities because of personal passion, a desire for recognition of their expertise or just a desire to be part of the community.

If managed effectively, there is enormous value in co-creation and applying resources outside your borders. And imagine what this might do to attract and retain the Net Generation workforce we are always seeking out. They live and thrive in the online, collaborative, open environment.

The discussion in the GovLoop group on this topic is dynamic. Some believe that we spend too much time on requirements rather than instituting an agile, iterative systems development process. Many agree that the current federal acquisition process isn’t conducive to keeping up with changes in technology. Others feel an open collaborative forum might help level the playing field for small and emerging businesses allowing them "to compete on the basis of their ideas,” while others think it might put them at a further disadvantage because large businesses could apply more resources, potentially biasing and unfairly steering a requirement. Others suggest there is value in including people from academia and private citizens in the process.

I think what we all are saying is that there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way we acquire goods and services in government. We have somewhat of a crisis in federal acquisition today and need to address this crisis through multiple channels.

Could this be one of those channels?

About the Author

Mary Davie is assistant commissioner of the Office of Integrated Technology Services in the General Services Administration's Federal Acquisition Service.

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Reader comments

Thu, Jun 18, 2009 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

I agree with Ms. Davie that the discussion on GovLoop has been dynamic, and I have been pleased at the opportunity to both participate and contribute. One of my contributions was in the area of requirements development. I disagree that too much time is spent on requirements. In fact, one of the biggest issues with the acquisition process is the lack of clearly defined policies and procedures to development requirements that should fully describe the methodology and a minimum set of activities required for each of the key areas of requirements development, documentation, verification and validation, and management. The overarching issues is the inability of a clearly focused communications strategy and ensuring that the key stakeholders for the systems are involved in the requirements development process, which further complicates change management activities. I believe that more collaborative forums, such as the ones Ms. Davie describes, could do much good to ensure diversity into the process and improve overall acquisition outcomes tremendously.

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