Procurement reform must address the human factor

Witnesses testifying at House committee hearing emphasized the 'poisoned atmosphere' that acquisition officials must work in, as part of an effort to shape an upcoming reform bill.

Stan Soloway PSC and Paul Misener, Amazon

Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, and Paul Misener, vice president of global public policy at Amazon, were among the witnesses testifying at a recent hearing on procurement reform. (Committee on Oversight and Government Reform photo)

In a two-hour congressional hearing about IT acquisition, lawmakers and experts on Feb. 27 discussed strategic sourcing, IT commodities, open-source options, the authority of the CIO, and the inflexibility of the federal appropriations system. Yet again and again, the conversation returned to acquisition employees -- and to program managers in particular.

Experts told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that wise purchasing depends on employees' training, their business acumen, and their bosses' expectations.

In recent years, though, acquisition officers have worked in a "poisoned atmosphere," Dan Gordon, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said. They fear mistakes and blame, even the potential for what may be viewed as waste. They choose the lowest price over better quality at a higher cost, he said, because any other decision can be seen by some overseers as an unjustified expense.

Gordon, now the associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University, said the acquisition workforce has been "traumatized" by continuing resolutions, disrespect, and the risk that inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office will call out poor contracting decisions.

"They're worried about, perhaps, being dragged in front of this committee," Gordon told Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), prompting a smile from the committee chairman.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) questioned whether agencies are buying "wisely" by stressing price—particularly the lowest price technically acceptable.

"Sometimes, people are looking at best price, not necessarily looking at quality," said the committee’s ranking member. "And sometimes the price is nice, but in the long run, you're not really saving because you're not purchasing wisely and looking at the long run."

Cristina Chaplain, the Government Accountability Office’s director for acquisition and sourcing management, said that at a tactical level, agencies need strong, well-trained program managers to develop clear requirements and realistic cost estimates, which all go hand in hand. On a strategic level, she said, agencies must give program managers the right training and support. The keys to procurement success are adequate visibility over an investment portfolio, and officials who are able to make important trade-off decisions based on cost, benefits and risk.

Homeland Security Department CIO Richard Spires said federal officials are hindered by the fast-paced IT world and an ancient, overly complex procurement system. "Agency leadership's need for speed and agility has far outstripped the procurement and finance models," he said.

Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council and a former defense undersecretary, said the most important way forward may be substantially enhancing the focus on the workforce.

With failed procurements, he said, "it's not necessarily the strategy that was wrong or correct. It's a people issue."

Many of the concerns expressed are longstanding problems, but Issa's committee is putting together a bill that may help resolve some of them. The Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act is considered a potential reform on a scale not seen since the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 and the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996. Several members of Congress, led by Issa, released a draft proposal to the community in September to gather feedback about its provisions. A hearing Feb. 27 delved into the issues of the bill, which sparked the discussion on workforce.

The draft legislation would expand training for the IT acquisition workforce and offer awards for excellence, including cash incentives. It would create IT acquisition cadres, comprised of employees with highly specialized skills in acquiring IT, including program and project managers.

In a similar vein, Spires said DHS developed the DHS IT Human Capital Strategy, an approach that outlines IT career paths and enables the department to more formally address how new workers can progress along a technical or managerial career track.

Soloway said the government needs "a fundamental rethinking," and similar centers of excellence to develop leaders in acquisition and program management.

After hearing the testimony and calls for a new thinking on the workforce, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), said, "I think maybe we need to beef up the people part" of the bill.

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