Acquisition environment 'is receptive to new ideas'

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The time is ripe for an injection of new ideas into the federal acquisition process, a leader of Defense Department acquisition operations said at a gathering of federal IT managers and suppliers March 20.

In a keynote speech at ACT IAC's Acquisition Excellence conference in Washington, D.C., Katrina McFarland, assistant secretary of Defense for acquisition said the latest efforts at procurement reform are the most ambitious since the "peace dividend" days of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In that post-Cold War environment, she said, the federal government looked to tighten up spending on defense and move acquisition responsibilities to industry.

That shift, she said, led to a fundamental reshaping of how government bought technology.

McFarland said her department has been looking for similar opportunities for innovation in the acquisition process in the last few years as spending has stagnated.

Tight budgets and a shrinking federal acquisition workforce, she said, are again driving change. "The environment is receptive to new ideas right now," she said.

Understanding what acquisitions are important, what's needed to do them, and how contracting vehicles serve as guideposts for agencies to navigate the new landscape are crucial, she said. Opening dialogues about the acquisition process and practices with agency employees can also foster innovation with little expenditure. "Sometimes," she said, "good ideas can come from unexpected places."

A better understanding of practices like lowest priced, technically acceptable -- aimed at reducing costs and increasing acquisition efficiencies -- is needed as well, according to McFarland.

LPTA has become something of a pejorative term, but seeking the lowest price, said McFarland, really is not the key to understanding LPTA. The trick is understanding where it fits and where it doesn't.

"LPTA used appropriately is a good tool, but it shouldn't be used to seek innovation," she said. In the long run, a fixed contract for cutting-edge projects could wind up less costly and more effective.

Terms under LPTA contracts have to be tightly defined or they are useless, she warned. Contracting officials also must have a close understanding of the technology they are buying before invoking LPTA, she said.

Government-wide acquisition contracts -- NASA's Solutions for Enterprise Wide Procurement (SEWP), the National Institutes of Health's Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC) and GSA's Center for Governmentwide Acquisition Contracts -- can provide a sometimes more efficient way to buy IT in a changing world, according to executives who run them.

Pricing, a critical piece of any acquisition, has become even more critical in the current budget environment, said Rob Coen, acting director of NITAAC.

GWACs, he said, work closely and continuously with vendors to come up with pricing options for their plans. Using a GWAC, agencies can streamline their acquisition because the plans have already been worked out, allowing them to buy IT products more readily than trying to craft a separate contract on their own. The intended result is better prices and accelerated acquisition times.

NITAAC is moving to provide capabilities for price comparisons in its ECS III products and services contract that will allow agencies to see what another agency paid for a particular component, said Coen. The capabilities, he said, would show the context of the item in a project.

That context, said Joanne Woytek, SEWP program manager, is crucial in the world of fast-moving technology.

She said pricing can vary tremendously from vendor to vendor, and depending on capability and use. A basic Dell computer with very little functionality is not of much use for a project looking to buy Dell computers for a more complex job, Woytek said, and prices will reflect that.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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