Procurement reforms are tough in lean times

Workforce shortage will make procurement changes difficult

It’s a Washington truism that everyone wants to make policy but no one wants to implement it. There is no lack of ideas about how to change the acquisition system. And, of course, some folks would rather do nothing at all because the current system, dysfunctional as it might be, works for them.

The Obama administration clearly has some procurement policy objectives, including a reduction in no-bid contracts. But any attempt at change must cope with a depressing reality: the lack of skilled acquisition professionals.

Agencies can always hire more people, Congress permitting. But good contracting officers, like fine wines, need time to develop their full potential. After years of neglecting the acquisition cadre, there is no quick fix for this problem.

So, what can be done in the short run? Any reform initiative must recognize the limitations of the existing workforce's members. Many of them are ill-equipped to exploit the dazzling array of powers and vehicles that have sprouted up in recent years. For now, we should return to the time-tested buying mechanisms of sealed bids and competitive proposals. Some disparage those systems as rules-based. But let’s face the facts: Most contracting officers are better off using a complete and well-understood process than trying to innovate on the fly. We should limit the exotic stuff to contexts in which they make sense and the few officials who can handle them do so.

The Obama administration would also like to reduce outsourcing. But someone has to do the work the contractors are doing now, unless entire programs and functions are scrapped. So the amount of reduction depends on how many new civil servants Congress will authorize.

The outsourcing discussion has been deadlocked in a philosophical debate about what functions are inherently governmental. A pragmatic alternative is to think about outsourcing strategically. What functions can an agency contract out to free resources for its most important tasks?

One example, often cited by Professor Steven Schooner of the George Washington University Law School, is that contractors are ideal for one-time projects. When the work is done, the contract is over. Civil servants, however, are around for the long haul.

Another way to outsource is to find private-sector activities that can be put to government use. For instance, large hotel chains regularly provide furniture, food, facility maintenance, etc. Those activities don’t differ much from running the physical plant of a barracks or prison. And because such companies aren’t in the business of supplying the goods they buy, they could avoid the conflicts of interest that have bedeviled other large outsourcing programs.

Finally, there are many legal and administrative quirks that take up more time and effort than they are worth. Why, in the Internet Age, do problems regularly arise with delivering bids and proposals to the right place at the right time? Lots of those small, annoying issues could be fixed with relatively little money or effort.

The lack of experienced and skilled employees limits what the Obama administration can do with the procurement system. But even with those constraints, the system can improve.

About the Author

Joseph J. Petrillo is a lawyer at Washington law firm Petrillo and Powell.

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