Kelman: Buying commercial

The debates about commercial contracting and government risk involve high stakes

Two presentations at a recent acquisition research conference at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., reminded me of what is at stake in recent efforts to revert to the government procurement regime of the 1980s.

It is easy to forget the situation back then, when the government routinely demanded that contractors provide cost data for commercial items, not just those developed for the government.

In the 1990s, the government moved away from requesting cost data when buying commercial technology to encourage vendors, particularly information technology companies, to sell modified or cutting-edge items to the government. Typically, companies are not willing to do that if they are required to provide cost data that is proprietary or, in many cases, not available in the form that the government demands.

Speaking in Monterey, Pierre Chao of the Center for Strategic and International Studies contrasted the Defense Department’s need for traditional weapons that require long lead times and involve considerable development work with newer needs for rapidly deployable small-scale technologies to fight terrorism and other asymmetric threats. To a much greater degree than traditional weapons functions, such capabilities are based on applying, modifying and integrating commercial technology. Any procurement regime that makes acquisition of such technology more difficult hampers our ability to develop quick responses to today’s threats.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Larry Ryder gave a fascinating presentation on the Joint High-Speed Vessel for troop transport. The ship is a modified fast commercial ferry. DOD chose to adopt that inexpensive, sensible vessel in 2001, when it was looking for opportunities to use commercial solutions. But changes in the procurement climate since then have nudged DOD back to a more traditional approach, which features delays and increased costs.

That backsliding has raised concerns among program customers. Ryder criticized the “lack of acceptance of commercial solutions and best commercial practices.”

Like any big change, DOD’s push for greater use of commercial technology was not perfect. The Air Force should never have classified the C-130J fighter as a commercial item. A few sole-source, spare-parts vendors took advantage of DOD. On occasion, commercial technology did not work as well as hoped. But if change is prohibited unless it is error-free, there will never be change.

An intelligent approach is to learn from failures. An example of sensible change is DOD’s proposal to allow contracting officers to receive certified cost data for sole-source buys if there is no other way to establish that prices are reasonable.

Unfortunately, not everyone embraces the idea of building on successes and learning from mistakes. Dinosaur Age Exhibit 1 is self-styled watchdog the Project on Government Oversight, which has advocated repealing the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act and the revival of the cost-data-for-everything world of the 1980s. Such an approach, straight from the hoary days of the earliest PCs, would cut the government off from many of the benefits of the Information Age. That is what’s at stake in the current debates.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at


FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group