Contracting

'We've got to stop throwing Hail Marys'

Joe Jordan

Joe Jordan, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and now president of public sector at FedBid, argues that agencies must emulate the private sector's agile and iterative approach.

The future of federal IT contracting could look a lot like the environment at Google and other high-tech companies, where cutting costs and boosting efficiencies are as routine as breathing. But, say former and current procurement officials, winning the future will still involve knowing the nitty-gritty of what an agency is trying to accomplish with its IT contracts.

Being able to act quickly and effectively in the face of technology that has outpaced government's ability to buy it effectively is a constant challenge, according to panel discussions at the National Contract Managers Association's 2014 conference in Washington on July 28. In the face of similar challenges, private industry has adopted shorter development cycles coupled with more agile techniques.

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Federal agencies are just beginning to do the same.

"We've got to stop throwing 'Hail Marys'' at large federal IT projects, Joe Jordan, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and now president of public sector at FedBid, said during a panel on technology's impact on acquisition. "It's got to be broken up into five- to 10-yard passes."

Agile development practices could help, Jordan said, as could new initiatives like the General Services Administration's prices-paid portal that lets users compare prices for laptops and other technology commodities.

In the future, he said, measures of vendors' past performance could be used by federal acquisition officials more effectively and frankly.

The government's current past performance portal, he said, often offers information that is not really useable because of the need for vendors and federal buyers to keep peace with one another through long and ongoing relationships. In the future, he hopes the past performance portal will evolve into a more subjective and interactive environment similar to Yelp!, where customers post their opinions on a company's performance in real time, and those companies can respond in kind with explanations or remedies.

The ability of federal contracting officers to navigate the complexities of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) has long been a weakness for agencies trying to bring new talent into the procurement workforce fold, said Nick Nyack, chief procurement officer at the Department of Homeland Security.

"I believe there is a way to make people smarter faster in acquisition with its mounds of regulations -- which can be ridiculous," he said. "Something will come out of the woodwork that will help with decision-making."

That something could be technology similar to Google Glass, where the user looks at an object and gets details on it immediately and automatically. "Someone's going to figure it out," Nyack said. "We need a technical shortcut to help with acquisition."

Simulating complex acquisitions, Nyack said, can also speed up the mastering of techniques and rules, he said. "Invest in simulation," he advised attendees.

Creating a single contracting platform that cuts across agencies could be a boon for federal procurement. But one-size-fits-all is not a recipe familiar to many aspects of the bureaucracy, according to Elizabeth McGrath, director of federal strategy and operations at Deloitte Consulting.

"The armed services pride themselves on being distinct," said McGrath, who retired as the Pentagon’s first deputy chief management officer in November 2013.

Nyack, who had initially said a uniform cross-agency contracting platform would help improve procurement and make it more manageable and effective, reluctantly agreed with McGrath. "I would like to see it done. It'll never happen," he said, blaming institutional and cultural differences among agencies.

Evolving standards

The difficulties and future promise of technology in contracting were apparent in a standing-room-only presentation on how to contract for cloud computing.

Stephen Yuter, acting director of acquisition and head of contracting activity at the Department of Health and Human Services, told his audience that contracts for cloud computing at federal agencies are evolving.

Static, pro-forma contracts cannot be applied effectively to emerging services for a multitude of reasons, he said. Risks include security that might not be in the agency's control, possible failure to comply with government directives such as the Federal Information Security Management Act and HSPD-12 common identity standards, and resistance to cloud in general from some federal executives.

Still, Yuter said, cloud services are worth the trouble it takes to draft the contracts. But contracting officers should be aware of the potential shortcoming, look for service-level agreements wherever possible and have detailed statements of work, terms of service and concrete objectives in their contracts to ensure they get the most out of any deal.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer covering acquisition, procurement and homeland security. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Wed, Jul 30, 2014

One thing I've learned watching SpaceX fleece money from NASA (i.e. the taxpayer). Contractors will market to the govt as much as they can knowing they need to keep the "goose that lays the golden egg" alive as long as possible so they can have profit. Mr. J is now part of that marketing ploy and his job is to extract $$ from taxpayers. Just like SpaceX, he wants money and the govt has the deepest pockets in town. The taxpayer is being fleeced.

Tue, Jul 29, 2014 Joren Allknow

Well said, but behind just about any "Hail Mary" in the last decade has been consultant bias, largely through various advisory contracts or concept or reqt studies or other positioning of typical firms that are not excluded from the Big Contract downstream. As a result, the government, in its ignorance, is easily convinced to go for the Big One. And, as all the Big Agencies and all the Big Contractors well know, the Big One rarely works. Just name one that has worked.. Rather, they turn into serially mod-ed contracts where the revenue just keeps on coming. And the Feds who brought such monster services contracts hardly ever get tagged out for their lame efforts. It is a vicious circle or cycle, especially when the feds join the circle of contractors after they retire. We actually need a law and steel-booted regulators in OMB, as well as skilled overseers and appropriators in Congress (I know, this is a real joke) in order to implement what Mr. J recommends. I just wish he had pushed to stop these disasters when he was at OFPP. I can't easily point to one action that suggested this goal. Maybe someone can fill in the blank.

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