Wagner: Year-end spending

Deadlines for submitting acquisition requests are coming earlier each year, so be forewarned

Pity federal program managers. As the fiscal year starts, many often don't have a budget and must operate under a continuing resolution, sometimes for an entire year. If a budget is enacted, the year may be half over before program managers even get the money. For those managing with 'one year money,' dollars expire at the end of the fiscal year, not 12 months after they get them. At the same time, oversight bodies lie in wait, watching for end-of-year dumping, or failing to adhere to procedure.

Meanwhile, it gets more difficult to obligate the money that arrives late. Procedures are getting more complex, more time-consuming and involve more reviewers. The government is doing more work through contracts, so shortages in the acquisition workforce mean fewer people must do more work to obligate more money. Deadlines to get in acquisition requests are moving earlier. As one pundit said three years ago, 'July is the new August,' referring to the deadline for submitting requirements for an award within the fiscal year. I am waiting for someone to announce that June is the new July.  

These expenditures support programs that matter. Being late or ineffective affects defense, the environment, health care or the mission of the agency. It's tempting to lament the problems of increased procedural complexity, the perverse incentives that come with  'one-year money,' or failures of governance. Because it seems likely that things will be getting worse, it's more fruitful to explain how effective program managers address the world they have.

Let's begin with the bad news. It's already too late for this fiscal year. This advice is for next year. End-of-year decisions require a balance of priority and practicality.  The lower priority with a contract vehicle will trump a higher priority that cannot be awarded. Practicality takes work upfront.

Here are some tips. One, begin early and plan an acquisition strategy that builds in excess capacity and faster reaction times.   That means having contracts or interagency agreements with options that can be funded incrementally.  This applies to acquisitions planned and executed over years and those for new activities. Watch for new financial interpretations. Recent ones from some chief financial officers impose new limits on what can cross fiscal years.

Two, build a good relationship with your contracting folks. Help them to understand your requirements, let them know early what is coming and don't ask them to do your work. Give them real requirements for what they can buy on your behalf.  Cordial relations help. They matter when priorities come down to the wire. Ideally, as the end of the fiscal year approaches, you will have contracts and interagency agreements established that can be added to in the final crunch.

Finally, always spend the money wisely to support the mission. Resources are tight and getting tighter. We can't afford to waste them, no matter what the system encourages us to do.

Wagner is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He recently retired after more than 30 years in government, serving for a time as the acting commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Acquisition Service.

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