Cost overruns, program delays remain
The Federal Aviation Administration has cut the time it takes to award contracts by 50 percent in the first five years since receiving its own acquisition authority. The agency's next challenge is contract management, the most important part of procurement.
Reforms passed along with the FAA's fiscal 1996 appropriations bill have helped the agency keep up with technology, avoid lengthy and costly protests, terminate unproductive contractors and try different acquisition methods, said Gib Devey, director of the FAA's Office of Acquisitions.
"We can do a reasonably good job of getting to the point where we award a contract, but it's the post-award management of these acquisitions where there's a real challenge," Devey said. "You may find that the specification wasn't perfect. You may find that you didn't give adequate room for the things the operator needs."
To help the agency quickly field new systems, the 1996 law exempted the FAA from the Competition in Contracting Act, Federal Acquisition Regulation, Small Business Act and protest regulations.
The FAA then created its Acquisition Management System (AMS) to boil all its procurement policies into one document and encouraged FAA users to examine how the FAA deploys new technology, spends money and manages acquisitions. The agency also began using product teams to manage the development and implementation of new systems.
Although that's paid off in faster contracts, Devey said it is more difficult to save time in the implementation phase. One notable example is the Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System contract, which took only six months to award. But problems with human computer interface issues delayed its rollout and added millions of dollars to the budget. Software problems with the FAA's Wide Area Augmentation System have left that contract more than two years behind schedule.
"You can help early on in your acquisition strategy if you award the contract based on best value and pay a little more for a better technical solution," Devey said.
Governmentwide acquisition reform was intended to give program managers and agency heads more authority, said Renny DiPentima, president of SRA International Inc.'s consulting and systems integration unit and former lead on an acquisition-reform panel for the Clinton administration.
DiPentima is pleased the FAA is trying to improve its procurement practices. But he would "have to think long and hard about whether I'd let every agency have their own procurement authority."
Langhorne Bond, former FAA administrator, said procurement reform could not be successful because the problem was mischaracterized. "The problem is they can't figure out what to buy."
He suggested the only way to free the FAA from its barriers is to take the agency out of the executive branch and make it a nonprofit government corporation.
That move might improve the stability of funds, which Devey said hinders better contract management. Annual budgets leave uncertainty about the funding stream for long-term programs, and a more predictable or independent source of multiyear funding could help keep programs from cost and schedule slips.
"If you have a program funded $30 million in your fiscal year [request], and you're given only $17 million, something's got to give, and it's usually cost or schedule," Devey said.
He won't say that all contracts have gone smoothly under AMS, but most are processed faster than they were under the FAR. The FAA created the Broad Information Technology Services contract, from which customers can run mini competitions with pre-selected vendors. The contract averages about four business days for orders, he said. Similar vehicles created under the FAR are available at other agencies and through the General Services Administration.
Some industry consultants question if an exemption from the FAR is really what the FAA needs.
Avon James, president of Government Operations at Robbins-Gioia Inc., a management consulting firm, said the FAA needs to train program managers to understand the federal acquisition process the way the Defense Department has through programs such as the Defense Systems Management College.
About 12 of the 120 people in the FAA's contracts division have received their bachelor's or master's degrees, said Devey, who has enrolled himself in the Information Resources Management College. As DOD's acquisition classes become available, the FAA plans to send its acquisition workers.
Another consultant, Chip Mather, senior vice president at Acquisition Solutions Inc., noted that it's possible to improve the procurement process within existing regulations.
But Devey said a conservative contracting team "will use the FAR as a shield to not do things. People have become more conscious that they're responsible for decisions and they're given wide latitude to make those decisions."
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