2.0 takes hold in the acquisition community
Acquisition 2.0 has officials rethinking their processes and how they work
- By Matthew Weigelt
- Oct 22, 2009
First there was Web 2.0, which advanced the notions of information sharing, user-generated content and open collaboration into the vernacular of the Web. Then there was Government 2.0, which sought to extend social-networking tools and the transparency ethic of Web 2.0 to the practice of governing.
Now comes Acquisition 2.0. It dares to suggest that the wisdom of the crowd, to use a neologism coined by 2.0 evangelists, can improve the way federal agencies buy goods and services from the private sector.
Call it the Big Box of commerce and government.
Opening one of the government’s most arcane and impenetrable processes to public access and input might strike anyone familiar with the procurement system as wishful thinking at best — and ripe for abuse and scandal at worst. But Acquisition 2.0 is now a lively topic of discussion at the highest levels, from the Obama White House and the Office of Management and Budget to the General Services Administration and supportive think tanks and consulting firms.
The apostles leading the discussions have a difficult time describing exactly what Acquisition 2.0 is. It’s evolving, they say. It’s still in its infancy. If nothing else, it’s just a new catchphrase for a movement that has been in place for years: change management.
But they say the issues they are trying to address are real and beyond the scope of traditional command-driven problem solving. Contracting officers are finding their work spinning faster around them as they come under increasing pressure to make awards — a result of billions of new dollars in the economic recovery act and agencies’ annual budgeting process.
Although years of outsourcing and impending retirements threaten to drain the acquisition workforce of its most experienced contracting officers, the procurements that jam the inboxes of the remaining employees aren’t getting any less complicated. They need new methods and faster ways to award contracts quickly and successfully, administration officials say.
As a result, the acquisition community is turning to Acquisition 2.0.
Described simply, Acquisition 2.0 is about thinking differently and putting new procedures into play. Government officials and insiders are gathering to pose questions — both philosophical and practical — to one another at conferences and virtual meetings. They are also turning to social-networking sites in search of others' expertise.
The ultimate goals are efficiency, cost savings and better performance, say those who are leading the movement.
“It is the innovation in how the government buys that’s the goal of Acquisition 2.0,” said Jaime Gracia, vice president of federal services at Concepts and Strategies, a strategic communications company. Acquisition 2.0 “can help improve techniques the government needs to focus on things such as performance-based contracting and strategic sourcing.”
Acquisition 2.0 aims to take advantage of the knowledge that exists in various circles of experts. One central component is knowledge-sharing and collaboration, also called crowdsourcing.
Officials throughout the government are reaching out to the public for advice and insight.
Crowdsourcing occurs when someone tosses a question to a group of interested people who understand the issue at hand, in hopes of reeling in new and sometimes provocative ideas for carrying out a task.
“Unless we ask, we’ll never be able to think of all this by ourselves,” said Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of assisted acquisition services at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service. Davie is the leader of the Acquisition 2.0 discussion forum on GovLoop.com, a social-networking Web site with more than 20,000 members in and around government. GovLoop bills itself as the Facebook for feds.
Davie’s discussion group on GovLoop has 352 members and is composed of federal acquisition officials, government employees who deal directly with contracting problems, outside experts, consultants, and former officials who are loaded with knowledge and experience. The discussions cover hiring more government acquisition employees, handling the “greening” of federal procurement and responding to bid protests.
Recently, Davie asked the group for ideas for saving money through smarter acquisition practices and procedures.
The Obama administration wants to find ways to trim agencies’ budgets. The Office of Management and Budget released a memo in July about improving government acquisition as a way to accomplish it. OMB wants agencies to save 7 percent by fiscal 2011 by adjusting their acquisition practices and contracts.
Davie asked, “For the govies — would love to hear how your agency is approaching this as well as any ideas you have; from the non-govies — what ideas do you have for us? Would also like to hear what you think won't work or what we shouldn’t try to do.”
Members of Davie’s Acquisition 2.0 group have offered at least 35 fairly detailed suggestions. Peter Tuttle, a former Army contracting officer and member of the discussion group, responded, “What probably won’t work well is to simply ‘salami slice’ contracts with a 7 percent across-the-board cut — even though this method would be quicker to achieve.”
In an interview, Tuttle, who is also a senior procurement analyst at Distributed Solutions, a Virginia-based consulting firm, said he believes Acquisition 2.0 discussion forums can help, at least by bringing more attention to nitty-gritty acquisition problems.
“There is credibility created by these types of exchanges,” he said, adding that more participation from members can add more intellectual capital to the discussion.
“The beauty of this type of tool is that it can bring together acquisition professionals in every stage of their career — from the most junior to the most seasoned and from across agencies and industries," Tuttle said. "And we can share our experiences.”
The Better Buy Project
One of the linchpin problems in federal acquisition is the first phase of the acquisition process, also known as the pre-award phase. During this phase, an agency must specify a contract's requirements so that contractors can understand what the government expects.
To tackle that issue, Davie, along with the National Academy of Public Administration and the American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council, started another discussion group called the Better Buy Project. It will seek answers on how to improve the market research phase of the government acquisition process and better define a contract proposal’s requirements. Agencies typically scan the marketplace to find out what’s available to meet their needs, share information with industry on their requirements and desired outcomes, and often ask for that information in requests for information (RFIs) that precede the more structured requests for proposals (RFPs).
One popular suggestion is to end the practice of prescribing how a contractor should meet the agency’s need. Instead, advocates say agencies should use performance work statements, which simply state the final expectations or capabilities needed and allow the contractor to figure out how to do it. The approach relies more on the contractor’s expertise, experts say.
An important part of the Better Buy Project is the General Services Administration’s willingness to test a few of the most promising posted ideas.
In April, an IAC Transition Study Group advised the Obama administration on how to put Acquisition 2.0 features in place. It also identified some problems the administration would face, such as an undertrained acquisition workforce, cost overruns and a lack of competition for contracts. But it encouraged a spirit of legitimate experimentation in acquisition because, in the group’s view, the buying process can hinder the speed at which the government runs.
The IAC group noted that there are drawbacks to collaboration and open participation. The “initial use of any new tool will take longer, and listening to the citizens and incorporating comments may impact ‘speed,’” its report states.
However, the study group said more people will be involved, and acquisition will ultimately improve. In the end, Acquisition 2.0 “will drive faster ‘time to program impact,’ a better measure than ‘time to contract issuance.’ ”
Acquisition 2.0 has hurdles to overcome, though. The acquisition universe is not large, but many former government officials and private consultants can bring their expertise to the procurement process. Meanwhile, Acquisition 2.0’s primary users -- the acquisition workforce -- still need to be convinced of its benefits.
Jeremy Grant, chief development officer at Acquisition Solutions, said companies like his have already been helping agencies find ways to operate more efficiently by reconsidering how they function. With assistance from independent third parties, agencies can assess their processes and reconfigure ones that don't work.
Agencies call contractors such as Acquisition Solutions to help “when their hair is on fire,” Grant said.
Acquisition 2.0 “is more about the process and getting a better result,” he added. At its core, it’s managing change throughout an agency and across the government. For example, the GovLoop discussion groups are good and can yield a body of knowledge, Grant said. But they have produced “few really important breakthroughs to radically change how an agency operates.”
For their part, acquisition workers tend to stay out of the limelight. They are overloaded and stressed by their volume of work, experts say, and unlikely to jump on a bandwagon of innovation if they suspect the wheels might fall off.
It’s common for agencies to take a year or more to award a complex contract. Indeed, experts say it takes agencies as long as 18 months to buy an IT system. So if a contracting officer uses a new technique and happens to overstep the rules and guidelines, the officer and agency have wasted a lot of time and energy.
Robert Burton, former deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and now a partner at Venable law firm, said the acquisition workforce won’t use new technologies if they don’t cut down the workload or make operations run more smoothly. To persuade acquisition employees to use Acquisition 2.0, the benefits must be plain and self-evident, Burton said.
“They need to see how this innovation can improve their daily lives and then relieve some of the stress they’re under,” he said.
The transparency that coincides with Acquisition 2.0 is another issue that agencies face. As agencies open to the public, officials need to address the quality of their data. Experts say databases such as the Federal Procurement Data System contain poor-quality or incomplete information. As a result, the data can skew the perception of government contracting, they say.
Old and new acquisition employees know how to use technology such as social-networking sites, said Deidre Lee, executive vice president of federal affairs and operations at the Professional Services Council, during a July panel discussion on Acquisition 2.0.
But employees are scared, said Lee, who is a former OFPP administrator. They are in a defensive crouch, and they find it easier to remain in that position than face the criticism that’s sure to come if they move and fail. They face criticism from inspectors general, Congress, watchdog groups, the Government Accountability Office and the media.
Only a few people can alter that defensive mindset. When there’s a mistake, Lee said, the administration’s “leadership has got to step up there and say, ‘Yep, we tried it, made a mistake, noted. Move on. Let’s try again’.”
The acquisition community is interested in figuring out how Obama’s nominee to be OFPP administrator, Daniel Gordon, views innovation and risks when it comes to Acquisition 2.0.
The public and private sectors tout the merits of transparency and collaboration for acquisitions, and most employees in the federal acquisition workforce are ready to take suggestions on how to proceed or improve, experts say. Yet, workers remain cautious.
“We have issues that must be dealt with to give the folks the support and clearance they need to use the tools that are out there,” Davie said.
Obama and the 2.0 era
The leadership for Acquisition 2.0 might be in the White House now. President Barack Obama and officials in his administration have pushed for participation and transparency as they seek to interact more with the U.S. public.
In the fiscal 2010 budget proposal, the administration gives its view of Government 2.0: a government-specific version of Web 2.0 that encompasses Acquisition 2.0. The proposal encourages greater transparency into government operations and various aspects of its data. It also calls for more participation and collaboration with people to tap their wisdom as agencies consider how to proceed on a specific procurement.
“Knowledge is widely dispersed throughout society, and the nation benefits when all levels of government have access to that dispersed knowledge,” the proposal states. Engaging the public helps the government improve how it works and how it makes decisions.
New technology can help make that connection. Government employees can link to the public, “thereby enabling the sharing of information and expertise and the solving of problems in new and more effective ways,” the budget proposal states.
Furthermore, the administration launched Data.gov in May, a Web site that offers machine-readable datasets from agencies’ information. Officials also revamped USAspending.gov, a Web site that deals with government contracts and spending. Officials added the IT Dashboard, which puts the government’s spending on display through colorful pie charts and bar graphs, giving taxpayers a clearer picture of what the government is doing with their money.
Transparency, accountability and participation “will allow the American people to have a stronger role in how their government addresses the challenges we confront as a nation,” the budget proposal states.
In another form of Acquisition 2.0, Acquisition Solutions and similar companies are using technology to improve the acquisition workforce.
Training has moved online, and government employees can take courses as their schedules allow. Acquisition Solutions helps agencies corral the experiences of longtime employees with virtual mentoring, in which an agency records the lessons its employees learned about contracting. Those veteran employees know the acquisition field and pitfalls of awarding contracts and managing them after an award.
In the end, Acquisition 2.0 is still in its early stages, untested and unproven. But its advocates believe it is moving forward. The concept is catching on in the contracting community, where mounting frustration over the status quo is prompting more people to find new approaches to government purchasing.
“There are so many different things going on right now, and there are lot of different ideas floating around,” Davie said. If the community doesn’t try out those ideas, she added, “we’re never going to get anywhere. We’re going to continue to struggle.”
Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.