Kelman: Buying commercial

The debates about commercial contracting and government risk involve high stakes

Two presentations at a recent acquisition research conference at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., reminded me of what is at stake in recent efforts to revert to the government procurement regime of the 1980s.

It is easy to forget the situation back then, when the government routinely demanded that contractors provide cost data for commercial items, not just those developed for the government.

In the 1990s, the government moved away from requesting cost data when buying commercial technology to encourage vendors, particularly information technology companies, to sell modified or cutting-edge items to the government. Typically, companies are not willing to do that if they are required to provide cost data that is proprietary or, in many cases, not available in the form that the government demands.

Speaking in Monterey, Pierre Chao of the Center for Strategic and International Studies contrasted the Defense Department’s need for traditional weapons that require long lead times and involve considerable development work with newer needs for rapidly deployable small-scale technologies to fight terrorism and other asymmetric threats. To a much greater degree than traditional weapons functions, such capabilities are based on applying, modifying and integrating commercial technology. Any procurement regime that makes acquisition of such technology more difficult hampers our ability to develop quick responses to today’s threats.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Larry Ryder gave a fascinating presentation on the Joint High-Speed Vessel for troop transport. The ship is a modified fast commercial ferry. DOD chose to adopt that inexpensive, sensible vessel in 2001, when it was looking for opportunities to use commercial solutions. But changes in the procurement climate since then have nudged DOD back to a more traditional approach, which features delays and increased costs.

That backsliding has raised concerns among program customers. Ryder criticized the “lack of acceptance of commercial solutions and best commercial practices.”

Like any big change, DOD’s push for greater use of commercial technology was not perfect. The Air Force should never have classified the C-130J fighter as a commercial item. A few sole-source, spare-parts vendors took advantage of DOD. On occasion, commercial technology did not work as well as hoped. But if change is prohibited unless it is error-free, there will never be change.

An intelligent approach is to learn from failures. An example of sensible change is DOD’s proposal to allow contracting officers to receive certified cost data for sole-source buys if there is no other way to establish that prices are reasonable.

Unfortunately, not everyone embraces the idea of building on successes and learning from mistakes. Dinosaur Age Exhibit 1 is self-styled watchdog the Project on Government Oversight, which has advocated repealing the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act and the revival of the cost-data-for-everything world of the 1980s. Such an approach, straight from the hoary days of the earliest PCs, would cut the government off from many of the benefits of the Information Age. That is what’s at stake in the current debates.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

**********









The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group