How to make acquisition part of the solution
- By Matthew Weigelt
- Jul 13, 2012
The Obama administration’s new digital strategy seeks to make government services available anywhere, anytime. But a central component of the mobile-centric strategy — and any kind of IT reform — is acquisition. To get the latest and greatest IT, the government has to buy it. That’s where Joe Jordan comes in.
Jordan took over as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in May just as officials released the strategy. He had been working alongside Federal CIO Steve VanRoekel and the e-government staff at the Office of Management and Budget since December 2011 as an adviser to Acting Director Jeffrey Zients. Previously, Jordan served as associate administrator for government contracting and business development at the Small Business Administration, and before joining SBA, he worked at global management consulting firm McKinsey and Co.
Jordan recently spoke with senior writer Matthew Weigelt about making the most of the government’s buying power and how to provide cutting-edge solutions for agencies while still maintaining oversight.
FCW: What role will the acquisition community play in the digital strategy?
Jordan: This is one of those areas that’s perfect to kick the conversation off with because it highlights a few of the key things I see as priorities moving forward.
As you say, with any big programmatic strategy, you’ve got to make sure that acquisition and the acquisition workforce are baked into the planning going forward. It drives home that acquisition is not an ancillary function when you’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of spending. It’s critical to the success of any of our big initiatives.
I am fortunate to have already gotten to work with the CIO, Steve VanRoekel, and his e-government team over the last six months that I’ve been at OMB. And I’m really excited to, in my new position, be able to ride out in front with him and communicate collaboratively in one voice — to both the chief information officers and the chief acquisition officers and make everybody understand that the needs of both of our communities are incredibly interlinked and both are incredibly important to the success of all the reforms we’re trying to do in the administration.
FCW: How would you explain the digital strategy to a chief acquisition officer?
Jordan: First is all the important work that we’re doing around acquisition reform and in information technology, given that industry’s importance in our buying sphere.
Whether it’s the digital strategy or another aspect of IT purchasing, this is a world that is always evolving. We see lots of innovation, and we want to be on the leading edge of that innovation. You’ve got to be smart about the way you procure and manage risk and those sorts of things.
Secondly, I would say that one of the core tenets is we have to embrace not just innovation in the technology world, we have to embrace innovative acquisition practices.
We need to be solution-oriented in how we can deliver to the agencies the mission-critical, innovative and entrepreneurial solutions that they need while still following all the rules in the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] and the good practices that we want to promote.
FCW: How can we reconcile the fast pace of IT developments with the slow, deliberate pace of procurement?
Jordan: Within the FAR rules and within the current set of priorities, we can still act more quickly while simultaneously ensuring quality and proper oversight.
I think when people [say], “Oh, procurement can slow down the process,” they’re referring to the fact that the FAR has 2,000 pages and 53 parts, and you’ve got to make sure you’re complying with everything.
That’s fine and that’s fair, and we need to make sure that our contracting folks are trained and understand all the rules they need to play by. But I’m very focused on the fact that we need to operate in the solution-oriented mind-set.
I think that’s one of the strengths that I hopefully will bring to this job, having spent time in the private sector. It’s not about defining the problem. We have a need. The digital strategy is a priority. Connecting our government agencies with high-quality, innovative entrepreneurs and leading-edge technologies is a priority.
So when Steve and the e-gov team [and] when the broader CIO community comes to me, comes to OFPP, comes to the chief acquisition officer, saying, “We need you to help us, we need you to partner with us,” we’re going to do that. We’re going to help find solutions so they can get these things fast while still making sure we’re reducing high-risk contracts, increasing competition and all those various important acquisition priorities. These are things that can be done together.
We need to make sure we’re identifying the people who have done this and the best practices. We can learn best practices from people who have failed in attempting certain things as well. You learn what not to do and how to do it better next time. We need to make sure we’re syndicating them as broadly as possible.
It’s the same primary challenge, which is bridging the awareness gap.
When you get the process aligned with all our policies and priorities while still maintaining an effective and efficient oversight, that’s when you’re in the sweet spot.
FCW: How can OFPP help?
Jordan: If our fundamental goal in OFPP is to deliver the best value to the American taxpayer when procuring the $500 billion worth of goods and services we buy every year, we’ve got to work with agencies to ensure we’re properly leveraging all of the government’s buying power.
We should be interacting with the contractor community rightfully in a posture that shows we’re the largest procurer of goods and services in the world. Unfortunately, all too frequently up until now, we’ve not acted as one unified [spending] base. Instead we’ve acted like 135 medium-sized businesses. We’ve got to stop doing that. We’ve got to break down barriers between agencies and understand that there’s real value in coming together.
One of my objectives is, before I leave office, we’re going to get [interagency contracting] off the [Government Accountability Office’s] High-Risk List. Interagency contracting isn’t inherently high risk. It is better when done right in certain sectors of the government than everybody having their own contract.
What’s more high risk: Having one centralized place where people go to buy office supplies from a set of vendors who have been preapproved and offer great prices, or have 600 different contracts with vendors? Clearly, the former is.
The challenge has been — and I agree with GAO on this — that there’s a lack of awareness sometimes on what interagency contract vehicles exist. Let’s get something online, where contracting officers can go to see what’s out there.
Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.