Forget the doorknobs, kill the alligators

Wikipedia image: Clay Johnson.

Former Presidential Innovation Fellow Clay Johnson said current acquisition rules discourage newcomers from even trying to help.

Federal IT acquisition will always be a work in progress, so reformers need to pick their fights carefully and address areas that produce solutions to the worst problems, said a group of federal, state and industry acquisition experts.

The biggest problem with federal acquisition rules and practices, according to outspoken former Presidential Innovation Fellow Clay Johnson, is that they scare away new talent from even trying to help. Johnson, now CEO of the software company Department of Better Technology, helped design the website during the 2008 presidential campaign.

"It's like federal acquisition is in a castle next to a volcano that's surrounded by a moat with alligator pits that have to be crossed using a shaky bridge," Johnson said. Attempts to overhaul the federal procurement rules "are like saying, 'What I need to do is work on the doorknobs.'"

At a roundtable discussion convened by Censeo Consulting Group in Washington on July 30, Johnson and other acquisition experts vented their frustrations with the system while promoting ideas aimed at modernizing and updating federal buying practices.

David Gragan, assistant director for procurement at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and Phil Bertolini, CIO for Oakland County, Mich., agreed with Johnson that one of the most effective fixes would be to make it easier for potential new suppliers to navigate the procurement process.

Small businesses, which the government tries to reach with set-aside programs and which often have some of the most innovative ideas, are particularly turned off by the forbidding requirements of the federal market, the panelists said.

"Disadvantaged businesses shouldn't have to pay consultants $10,000 to help them prove to the government they're disadvantaged," Johnson said. "We should give economically disadvantaged [sellers] the benefit of the doubt and then, through random audits, throw the liars in jail."

Legislative or regulatory fixes should focus on smaller areas, such as barriers to entry, rather than try to take on the entire acquisition apparatus, Johnson told FCW in an interview after the roundtable discussion.

Gragan agreed, saying "if government is so clumsy that we turn away the best sellers, we have a problem." By alienating innovative companies, the government puts itself at a technological disadvantage, he added.

Bertolini said the federal government tends to be too restrictive in its requests for proposals for projects, and he recommended having more RFPs that allow vendors to use their expertise to come up with a solution rather than having one prescribed by federal contracting officers, who are sometimes less technologically savvy.

Bertolini, whose county is near Detroit, said federal agencies might take a lesson from his economically depressed region about contracting with shrinking resources.

He said his office handled acquisition for a number of local communities and governments in the county. As the auto industry wilted, Bertolini said he had to innovate and share services with local governments, hammering out contracts that could be used by governments that in some cases did not have IT departments.

Collaborating ahead of time with agencies that might want the product or service helped speed the process along, he added.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

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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Reader comments

Mon, Aug 4, 2014 Alan

To the commenter above who intended no disrespect, it seems he had trouble following what was being said and by whom. Mr. Bertolini isn't running a business trying to take taxpayer money - he is a Government employee trying to run a Government IT function under arcane procurement rules. It isn't disrespectful to disagree with ones opinion, it is disrespectful to ascribe motives that are a reflection of your own biases and clearly not rooted in reality.

Fri, Aug 1, 2014

Let's also not forget that the law the system supports is a bad one. No web site can fix a bad law.

Thu, Jul 31, 2014

The problem is there is not, and cannot be, any added value because of how the present model is implemented. Most of these small businesses, as well as the large, are proxies and just drive costs up, even if they can potentially expedite activities. This is only necessary because government systems are by design Byzantine. Which is then exploited making a few people rich by stuffing more cogs into the wheel. What is need is serious streamlining via increased responsibility and authority, and accountability. We’ve created a workforce of functionaries and have processed process, which requires an additional level of abstraction to monitor and implement. The government is creating multiple levels of inertia and increased entropy, for what? Please be Mindful of Occam's Razor.

Thu, Jul 31, 2014

No disrespect intended, but this article is dribble. This gentleman is in a business that wants money from the taxpayer. Need concrete detailed examples of what he's talking about. He appears to be tapping into a popular belief the govt puts up unreasonable barriers. Besides, even though the president was thoroughly embarrassed by the rollout of, it was not due to federal IT procurement practices, rather a lack of IT talent WITHIN the govt. The federal govt can't attract talent to oversee the procurement of IT. So you have essentially bureaucrats overseeing IT procurement that don't know IT. The govt needs to figure out how to attract IT talent. This is usually done with more pay, better environment, etc. Right now federal employees are seen as the scum of the earth. Why in the heck would anyone that is talented EVER want to work for the federal govt when they could go to Cisco and get much better treatment, pay, perks? They wouldn't. Attracting and retaining talented gatekeepers (stewards of taxpayer money) is the solution, not simply modifying rules to help businesses like Mr. Bertolini's. All it takes is more money. If the govt could attract talent, all other problems, like arcane rules, would be tackled with a vengeance.

Thu, Jul 31, 2014 Al

Anyone who says this: ""We should give economically disadvantaged [sellers] the benefit of the doubt and then, through random audits, throw the liars in jail." should not be referred to as a acquisition expert. This is an IT person who is annoyed not an acquisition expert.

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