How to add more zip to the regulatory process

When it comes to approving regulations, bureaucracy is not a bad thing, but it could be better, acquisition experts say.

The process for creating new acquisition regulations is scheduled for a tune-up.

That's a tune-up, not an overhaul. As strange as it might seem to outsiders, the bureaucratic regulatory approval process — in which proposals go from committee to committee, office to office and back again for more reviews — has its virtues. The deliberate steps keep outlandish rules out of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), and they save government and industry from mass confusion caused by puzzling language.

Even so, federal executives say the process can be fine-tuned by recalibrating its engine. They say there’s got to be a tweak at the front end or somewhere in the middle to reduce the idling time.

“My No. 1 goal is finding ways to squeeze out those steps in the processes that are slowing things up, where cases are sitting for no reason,” Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, told officials at the General Services Administration during one of GSA's so-called slam events Feb. 9.

Locked in a room for an entire day, senior procurement officials and policy experts from all over the government picked apart the current process and looked for new approaches. They suggested ideas and rated them. Some ideas were eliminated immediately, although the rules of the day outlawed laughing. Other ideas made people think.


Related coverage:

GSA official tackles slow policy review process


The primary purpose was to eliminate any kinks in the bureaucracy of internal reviews and re-reviews of proposals.

Kathleen Turco, associate administrator of governmentwide policy at GSA, said she believes the process can be fine-tuned. “In the government, we spend a lot of time thinking and contemplating,” she said. She would like to see more action.

And action is just what the process needs.

One idea that has been floated is combining the Defense Acquisition Regulatory Council and Civilian Agency Acquisition Council.

There have long been questions about the need for two councils, said Robert Burton, former deputy administrator of OFPP and now a partner at Venable law firm. The councils generally go through the same process of examining proposed rules, so combining their subcommittees might save time. However, merging the two councils is politically impossible because no one would want to relinquish their authority, Burton said.

Ways to pick up the slack

Other ideas for improvement target the FAR secretariat's office, which is responsible for publishing proposed, interim and final rules. The office could shorten the process by issuing the different iterations more quickly.

“It was a bit disturbing how long some cases had been in the queue,” Burton said. Sometimes the rules sit for months while the office prepares to publish the Federal Acquisition Circular.

Likewise, the FAR signatories — officials from the Defense Department, GSA and NASA who must sign off on all final rules — could meet regularly for discussions and offer guidance for policy writers.

A former GSA signatory, who held the authority for a decade, said it might be a burden for busy executives, but it's needed. “At the end of the day, without senior executive input and supervision, it’s kind of hard to speed up the time it takes to go through the process,” the former signatory said.

Tom Davis, former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia and now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte and Touche, said government officials should issue proposals to the public in a more timely manner and respond more quickly to the comments they receive.

Turco said GSA’s recent daylong discussion identified three primary opportunities for streamlining the approval process:

  • Improving coordination between agency procurement officials and the civilian, defense and FAR councils, which write the rules.
  • Identifying and resolving any policy decisions that could delay proposed rules.
  • Having seasoned regulation writers take the time to mentor younger ones.

Nevertheless, experts acknowledge that only so much can be done to shorten the process. Many of the steps for writing and approving regulations are set in stone — or at least in the FAR.

“It will never be a fast system,” Burton said. “That’s just the way of the government.”

But that won’t stop Turco and others from looking for ways to improve it.

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