How you buy is as important as what you buy

When Chip Mather retired from the Air Force contracting office after a 20-year career in federal procurement, he received plenty of lucrative job offers from "three-letter companies." But that would have meant doing the same contracting work from a commercial perspective. The question was if there was anything else he could do.

The answer was yes, and he began by creating Acquisition Solutions Inc. in 1996 with partner Eben Townes, also a 20-year veteran of the federal contracting arena. Mather's passion for helping improve agencies' acquisition processes is what drove him to start his own business.

Many consulting firms claim to have that passion, but Acquisition Solutions is one of the few that has put its money where its mouth is, turning down the kinds of jobs that many others take as a way of paying the bills.

"We are not interested in the usual kind of staff augmentation jobs that agencies offer," Mather said. "We truly want to help people get better at the job they do."

The Acquisition Solutions approach is performance-based services contracting, which requires agencies to state what its objectives are for a particular acquisition and lets the winning companies pick the best ways to meet those objectives.

One of the more startling results of that approach is the virtual disappearance of the hallowed "statement of work." The inches-thick requirements document that has traditionally accompanied major contracts is now boiled down to a thin sheaf of papers.

Along with that, the usual haggling and second-guessing over what the requirements mean and what criteria should measure their success disappear.

When Acquisition Solutions representatives visit agencies, they try to help officials understand their objectives for a contract, Mather said, and then suggest using those as the basis for a procurement.

"Government is usually good at defining what it wants out of an acquisition, and the private sector is good at coming up with solutions to meet that need," he said. "So why put this giant filter of a [statement of work] between them?"

It's not that agencies haven't tried to develop performance-based contracting. Acquisition Solutions was called in last year to give advice on the U.S. Coast Guard's Integrated Deepwater System acquisition, which will develop an integrated environment of command, control, communications, computers and other systems.

The Coast Guard was "awfully close" to a performance-based acquisition, Mather said, but had reverted to their old ways for the actual request for proposals.

Perhaps the ultimate example of what performance-based acquisition can produce is the recently awarded, multiyear Information Technology Managed Services (ITMS) contract, which will establish the IT infrastructure for the Transportation Security Administration. It took just three months from inception to award, and prime contractor Unisys has already begun the first year of work. In the 1990s, that kind of mega-contract would have taken years and millions of dollars to develop.

To some, the TSA award represents an inevitable progression in what has been an evolving pattern. Kevin Durkin, senior vice president of sales and marketing for EDS' government solutions division, said that the past three years has shown what the government is capable of when it partners more closely with industry.

Even Mather said that the TSA contract, which Acquisition Solutions influenced heavily as a support contractor, was somewhat unusual in that TSA's chief information officer, Pat Schambach, understood the concept of outcomes vs. requirements from the beginning. And TSA also "didn't have anything in place already" and so was open to the fastest way of doing things, he said.

Will this spur an explosion of performance-based contracting in government? That would be unrealistic, Mather believes, because the culture of government procurement is hard to change. Anyway, a few successes in writing performance-based contracts is not what will convince people of the approach's worth.

"The contract award is not 'mission accomplished' for" Acquisition Solutions, Mather said. "We need to get results and performance. It's what comes after the award that we are really interested in."

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