Procurement shops to become more automated

Automation blooms, training falters

The regulatory-laden federal procurement process is a tough beast to turn in any new direction. But some experts see a glimmer of hope for a bit of change in the coming five years.

The process will become more automated, some experts say. Malleable systems for writing contracts and new technologies will streamline workflow and decision-making processes. Those systems will also help capture individual departments’ preferences for instituting policies and regulations, said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at FedSources.

Some of the drive toward technology-based approaches comes from the younger professionals who are taking over procurement. They use technology throughout their daily lives and are likely to want to use tablet computers and smart phones to do their work, said Peter Tuttle, vice president of distributed solutions and a former Army contracting officer.

A day is coming when procurement software will no longer be the conventional end-to-end, all-encompassing solution, Tuttle said. Instead, it will be separated into modules that are designed to run on mobile devices and tailored to perform a specific step of the procurement process.

For example, a procurement officer could buy a module for one part of the acquisition process from one company, and buy software from a separate company for another part of the process. Then the officer could pay for the right to use both modules—for a single use—by using a purchase card, Tuttle said. However, it may not happen within five years.

“As long as the federal government provides common interface and standardization guidance, vendors can use their creativity to construct software solutions,” he said.

The knowledge that comes from personal interest could become more valuable because training is likely to falter, some experts say. Along with the general strain on the federal workforce, that will make recruiting and retaining top-caliber people even more of a challenge, Bjorklund and several other experts said.

“I’d like to think the acquisition workforce will be better trained and that the role of acquisition professionals will evolve to that of a business adviser, rather than a buyer,” said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners. "We’ve been saying that, though, for at least a dozen years now."

Unfortunately, training is always one of the first areas to take a hit when budgets have to be cut, and some agencies have already frozen the hiring of new employees, said Jaime Gracia, president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting.

“Combined with institutional knowledge leaving at alarming rates, which will worsen, I see a bleak horizon,” Gracia said.

Allen said officials face two issues: They must learn how to attract midcareer people with experience, and then they must give them high-level responsibilities without upsetting the people who have worked in the organization for a long time but don’t have the skills to be in senior positions.

Another aspect of procurement, insourcing vs. outsourcing, is also coming to a head, Allen said. Insourcing is likely to disappear as a significant trend in the next five years because the government will realize it can’t afford to build and maintain the infrastructure to support a larger workforce, he added.

“That’s not to say that we won’t see tactical forays into insourcing as political winds shift, but there will be no — dare I say it living in Virginia? — ‘tectonic’ movement on this front,” Allen said.

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Reader comments

Thu, Mar 1, 2012 Tony DiBenedetto DOI NBC Herndon, VA

My fear with relying too much on automation for procurement is that the CO won't read the whole contract from end to end and word for word. A contract is a legal document which, if a loss is involved, the writer of the contract takes the loss. In this case Uncle Sam. This same type of situation occurs from too much reliance on Spell Checkers. The amount of typos and missing or incorrect wording seems to have increased.

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