Letters to the editor

Acquisition is More Than Procurement

This responds to Susan Gerbing's letter in the April 7 issue of Federal Computer Week, in which she indicates that chief acquisition officers are unnecessary because agencies "have a senior procurement executive and typically a procurement executive" who "are fully responsible for the agency's acquisition program."

Within that statement is the problem.

Despite reform legislation (the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, the Clinger-Cohen Act), implementation policies (Office of Management and Budget Circulars A-11 and A-130), and regulations (Federal Acquisition Regulation core guiding principles and "acquisition teams"), many people still don't get it: There's a difference between "acquisition" and "procurement."

After FASA was enacted, some bright General Services Administration and OMB people came to an important conclusion: "The most important points in the life cycle of an investment occur before our present oversight begins."

Before Clinger-Cohen, oversight attention was almost exclusively focused on a project's procurement phase, that is, how the agency was going [to] competitively procure its IT needs. This scrutiny essentially accepted all the agency's other work on project requirements that dealt with requirement estimates, considered alternatives, assumptions, hopes and guesses — most of which were unrealistically optimized to win approval and project funding.

Today, "acquisition" is the focus and its scope is larger than procurement. It includes — based on the agency's strategic and annual planning goals and measures — figuring out what is needed, why, how many/how much and when; scoping relevant conditions and constraints; exploring alternative solutions; estimating costs; budgeting funds; and performing procurement (contracting being an acquisition option), program management, etc.

Procurement, though extremely important, has been the tail wagging the acquisition dog for some time. There have been many successful procurements and many have broken time-to-award speed records. However, many of these same projects failed to satisfy and support the agency's needs. In those cases, there has been a successful procurement — but a failed acquisition.

This is where high-level attention is needed. Now, in better balance and recognized as an agency core competency, it needs a chief acquisition officer to make sure that acquisition (and procurement) competency is established and focused toward delivering better mission-support results.

Eben Townes

Federal Strategies LLC

Unrealistic Expectations

The "Lessons from SEVIS" editorial [FCW, April 14] mentions that "lawmakers and OMB officials believe more training and an infusion of commercial best practices are likely solutions." The next paragraph suggests that unrealistic expectations placed on programs can undercut those solutions. I fully agree.

Those of us in the process improvement consulting community are called upon, time after time, to fix projects that are in deep trouble. It's almost always too late by the time we're called upon. Process improvement takes effort and time, and project managers have their hands full with damage control.

There are practices that can help staunch the bleeding, if used carefully. Too often, senior managers or oversight groups don't want that; they want full-scale organizational change. It's rather like treating a trauma victim by putting him on an improved diet, starting an exercise program, administering a nicotine patch, setting up yearly heart/cholesterol/prostate checkups, prescribing a long-term medication start-up and weaning strategy, and then executing resuscitation techniques.

All these actions are important and probably life- saving in the long run. In the short term, however, the patient will die.

Section 804 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003 requires software acquisition process improvement programs for certain Defense Department-related organizations. It appears to recognize that use of such tools as the Capability Maturity Model and the Six Sigma strategy have not reaped all the expected benefits. And why should they have? Their typical use has been in the form of mandates to "be Level 3," regardless of program status, risks or size.

If every physician's tool is used as a club, the patient still feels clubbed, no matter how good the tool. If models and standards are used like clubs, programs such as the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System will get clubbed and the models will be declared ineffective.

Worse, the value of the tools is diminished because agencies mandating their use do not all understand them. Many organizations find ways to "game" assessments in order to comply with uninformed mandates. Can we blame them? People forced to comply with a wellness program overnight to keep their jobs are more likely to cheat their records than people allowed a reasonable time to comply.

Shawn Presson Director of Organizational Practice ITS Services Inc.

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